'Pretty Horses' puts McCarthy on the map

Monday Book Reviews

August 09, 1993|By Rufus Griscom

ALL THE PRETTY HORSES. By Cormac McCarthy. 30 pages. Paperback. Vintage. $12.

IN THE last year, Cormac McCarthy has been transformed from an unknown writer of stark, violent, barely circulated novels into the famously enigmatic author of "All the Pretty Horses," winner of both the National Book Award for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It's now out in paperback, along with "Child of God" and "Outer Dark," two of the author's earlier works.

Mr. McCarthy's first five novels won him a handful of awards, including a prestigious MacArthur "genius" fellowship, and a reputation for powerfully wrought portrayals of unrepentant vagabonds and cutthroats, but none sold more than 5,000 copies. McCarthy aficionados might call it a calculated compromise, but "All the Pretty Horses," far and away the most accessible of Mr. McCarthy's novels, stands as a monument to the author's versatility and deserves a place beside the best of American classics.

The novel is driven by the errant, all-American John Grady Cole, last in a long line of Texas ranchers, a character with enough pluck and homespun charisma to stumble through a trilogy, of which this is the first installment. Sixteen-year-old John Grady and his malcontent buddy Rawlins leave their family ranches in Texas in 1949 for adventure in Mexico. They muddle their way through various snafus, rubs and romances, returning to Texas almost a year later and several years wiser.

The novel reads with the effortless, wistful tone of a true classic -- as if we have somehow read it before, as if someone is already jumping on the film rights. Steeped in nostalgia for the days when boys grew up fast and hard with little room for error, it has all the makings of a classical Western -- except gun shots are less frequent, more accurate, and blood flows longer than a popped pouch of ketchup.

Mr. McCarthy's last novel, "Blood Meridian," released in 1985, was an almost prohibitively violent work also about cowboys on the Mexican-American border. Beside it, "All the Pretty Horses" reads as if edited for Disney. The shift is largely due to Mr. McCarthy's introduction of a protagonist plainly worthy of our sympathy, a protagonist with a discernible set of values. The novel retains, however, Mr. McCarthy's tersely evoked tableau of a disinterested, unaccommodating world, true in its pleasures and beauties, unrepentant in its injustices. Cool accounts of merciless acts are unexplained, unavenged, as much a part of the scenery of human history as the Mexican deserts and mountains. The line-by-line showmanship of Mr. McCarthy's earlier work is somewhat tamed, as if deferring to the surroundings, the moment, the narrative itself.

But though the novel is more stylistically reserved than its predecessors, it is still clearly marked by Mr. McCarthy's meticulously forged prose -- erudite narration punctuated by coarse, phonetically-rendered dialogue. And this time we are left with a sense of justice, of conscience.

In Mr. McCarthy's words:

thought that the world's heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world's pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

Mr. McCarthy himself has spent the better part of his life doggedly guarding his anonymity. He lived in a dairy barn outside Knoxville for eight years, bathing in a nearby lake and writing "Suttree," which some say is his greatest work. His second wife, with whom he spent this period, complained, "Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was on the page. So we would eat beans for another week."

Perhaps Mr. McCarthy likes the role of the understated, self-sufficient cowboy. But he will find it harder to stay out of the public eye as he is recognized as one of the great American authors of the 20th century.

Rufus Griscom is a writer in Little Rock, Ark.

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