“This is still good country.
Yeah. I know it is. But it aint my country.…
Where is your country? he said.
I don’t know, said John Grady. I don’t know where it is. I don’t know what happens to country.” (299)
Not counting the movies of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, it has taken me all my adult life to get to Cormac McCarthy. Now that I’m out in West Texas for a spell, it seemed like a good time to see what all the fuss has been about. Like John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, I’m saddling up today to head towards the border. They make good companions.
All the Pretty Horses is the first of three McCarthy books that are known as The Border Trilogy. It won the National Book Award in 1992. It’s cinematic front story is about Cole and Rawlins, two San Angelo teenagers in 1949 Texas who set out on horseback to look for ranching work in northern Mexico. They are joined early on by a younger boy who calls himself Jimmy Blevins and who rides a really fine horse.
Through a series of adventures and misadventures they lose Blevins, find work, and are establishing themselves a valuable members of a massive ranch. Cole and Rawlins have an innate sense for working with horses and they have particular success with a group of wild horses brought down from the mesa to be broken. In the meantime, Cole begins a forbidden romance with the patrón’s daughter, Alejandra – an act that eventually leads to the two being dragged off to prison, where they are brutalized and eventually freed.
I’ll save the spoilers for the last act of this drama, but suffice it to say that McCarthy presents all this with spot-on dialogue that crackles with life and even humor. (I did not expect to come to this book for the laughs, but they are definitely there.) You also got the blood. That was as advertised.
Behind the action is a more brooding, philosophical work that comes through most prominently in Cole’s interactions with the Dueña Alfonsa, the cultured grandaunt of the hacienda who guards the virtue of her goddaughter, Alejandra. Alfonsa and Cole muse on choice and fate, society versus the individual, and the nature of home. Alfonsa discerns in the Spanish (and Mexican) soul “a deep conviction that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed. Virgins, bulls, men. Ultimately God himself.” (230)
No one lives this out more than Cole himself. If this is the standard, he becomes a true Mexican. But this is also a meditation about home and Cole doesn’t find that. The book begins with him losing his family ranch on the death of his grandfather. It ends with the exchange that leads this review. Nobody knows where their true country is.
On this journey I’m on, I stopped in Columbus, Georgia to talk with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center and a Texas poet himself (interview coming soon). We talked about McCullers who often talked about the homesickness of American artists. Norwood said:
“[McCullers] says…what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves. They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them. Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.”
McCarthy is another poet of that spiritual isolation deep in the American soul. But he embeds it in a rich constellation of relationships and within a creation of creatures. If you can’t find the country in the land, perhaps you will see it in the eyes of all the pretty horses.