ALL THE PRETTY HORSES.
302 pages. $21. To readers familiar with Cormac McCarthy's five previous novels, the most startling aspect of "All the Pretty Horses" is its relative gentleness. Instead of the brooding misanthropes, rapists and spiritual cripples that typically populate his work, he presents us with a genial teen-age protagonist who dreams of becoming a cowboy.
For 16-year-old John Grady Cole, the year 1949 marks the end of an era. When his grandfather dies, the no-longer-prosperous Grady family cattle ranch passes to his mother, a stage actress. The big money in Texas now is in oil, not steers and John Grady's mother plans to unload the place over his protests.
Neither the boy nor his father, an itinerant war veteran with a penchant for gambling, is in a position to buy or lease the ranch. So one day John Grady saddles up his favorite horse and, accompanied by a like-minded friend named Lacey Rawlins, sets out from San Angelo to cross the border into Mexico, looking for ranch work.
In Mr. McCarthy's cosmos, the line dividing Texas and Mexico is more spiritual than geographical; it seems to separate the 20th century from the 19th. The land below San Angelo is wilder, the roads tougher, and the people more intimate with the land. The narrative slowly begins to shift gears, tilting John Grady and Rawlins out of their more or less civilized environment into a place closer to the state of nature. This place, for lack of a better name, might be called McCarthy country.
Shortly before they reach the Rio Grande, the boys meet up with Jimmy Blevins, a 13-year-old runaway; to their chagrin, Blevins follows John Grady and Rawlins into Mexico. Mr. McCarthy gives Blevins a nervous trigger finger and a tremendous fear of lightning that will prove nearly lethal to John Grady before the end of the novel. Blevins loses his horse during a storm and they find it in a mud house in the Mexican village of Encantada. Here Blevins parts company with the boys.
John Grady and Rawlins arrive at La Purisima, a large spread where they are taken on after demonstrating their considerable skills at roping cattle and breaking wild horses. Eventually John Grady -- who, in one of the book's most entrancing sequences, oversees the breaking of 16 horses in four days -- is taken under the wing of the ranch owner, Don Hector. He also falls for Don Hector's city-educated daughter, Alejandra, which earns him the distaste of Alfonsa, her protective great-aunt.
But soon John Grady and Rawlins are ejected from this paradise by the Mexican police and taken to a holding cell at Encantada, where they find themselves accused of abetting Jimmy Blevins in a murderous attempt to take back his horse. In order to work himself and his friend out of this predicament, John Grady will find himself driven by elemental emotions, acting in ways less civilized than he might have thought himself capable.
Nothing is wasted in a Cormac McCarthy sentence; characters and scenes are sketched with a fierce economy, usually with only a few precise details or a line of pungent dialogue. At the same time, there is a Faulknerian depth and realness to things that is remarkable in contemporary fiction.
Mr. McCarthy's characters also have a religious dimension; they consider the rudimentary questions of God's existence and mercy as if 2,000 years of Christian theology had not preceded them. "You think God looks out for people?" Rawlins asks John Grady, and then answers himself: "I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before you're done there's wars and ruination and all hell. You dont know what's goin to happen. I'd say He's just about got to. I dont believe we'd make it a day otherwise."
The elderly Alfonsa speaks to John Grady of the same subject, after her own fashion: "Because the question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact. Because otherwise we are nothing. Do you believe in fate?"
Oddly, although John Grady's fate is played out in gripping detail in the book's final section, the overall effect of the novel is muted, anticlimactic. John Grady has been matured by his ordeal, but we're not exactly sure how. "All the Pretty Horses" is the first volume in a projected trilogy, which probably accounts for this sense of incompleteness. Perhaps Mr. McCarthy's pattern will be revealed as the Border Trilogy progresses; in the meantime, readers should not deny themselves the opportunity to partake of his formidable novelistic talents.
Mr. Vitale is a writer living in Iowa City.