If any writer can be truly said to have taken up where Faulkner let off, it would be Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses is but one example of why this is so. Simply put, this is a phenomenal novel. That does not mean it is always pleasant. Often times its power comes in its bleakness and its shocking brutality, and this is because neither of those two attributes are arbitrary or gratuitous.
This is the story of John Grady Cole, his cousin Rawlins, and the young drifter, Blevins, who takes up with them and who inadvertently involves them in the great conflict that rests at the center of the story. There is a love story here as well, also wrapped in tragedy. Above all else, in my opinion, the story is about the human search for transcendence and the war that the brutalities of life wage against that search and hope.
Now, that is my opinion. It is based not only on my own reading of this novel but also on my reading of McCarthy in general. I believe that the tension between the seeming purposelessness of life and the human awareness of some transcendent truth or reality beyond this theatre of the absurd is one of McCarthy’s great explorations and contributions.
All the Pretty Horses fairly teems with this tension. One can feel the struggle in the repeated conversations between John Grady and Rawlins over issues of transcendence. Consider, for instance, their conversation about judgment.
You think there’ll be a day when the sun won’t rise?
Yeah, said John Grady. Judgment day.
When you think that’ll be?
Whenever He decides to hold it.
Judgment day, said Rawlins. You believe in all that?
I don’t know. Yeah, I reckon. You?
Rawlins put the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and lit it and flipped away the match. I dont know. Maybe.
I knowed you was a infidel, said Blevins.
Or consider their discussion on the possibility of Heaven.
You ever think about dyin?
Yeah. Some. You?
Yeah. Some. You think there’s a heaven?
Yeah. Don’t you?
I don’t know. Yeah. Maybe. You think you can believe in heaven if you dont believe in hell?
I guess you can believe what you want to.
Rawlins nodded. You think about all the stuff that can happen to you, he said. There aint no end to it.
You fixin to get religion on us?
No. Just sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off if I did.
Or consider their conversations on the possibility of providence.
You think God looks out for people? said Rawlins.
Yeah. I guess He does. You?
Yeah. I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some d— 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.
John Grady nodded.
Or consider their conversation about prayer.
You ever pray? said Rawlins.
Yeah. Sometimes. I guess I got kindly out of the habit.
Rawlins was quite for a long time. Then he said: What’s the worst think you ever done?
I dont know. I guess if I done anything real bad I’d rather not tell it. Why?
I dont know. I was in the hospital cut I got to thinkin: I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t supposed to be hrere. You ever think like that?
The topic of God comes up even between John Grady and the kidnapped captain.
The captain nodded at the wound in his leg, still bleeding. The whole trouserleg dark with blood.
You going to die, he said.
We’ll let God decide about that. Let’s go.
Are you no afraid of God?
I got no reason to be afraid of God. I’ve even got a bone or two to pick with Him.
You should be afraid of God, the captain said. You are not the officer of the law. You dont have no authority.
Perhaps most poignant of all is the brief but telling comment made by an old man to John Grady as John Grady is making his way back to Texas. In the scene, the two are watching a young and newly-married bride and groom emerge from the church building.
He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.
There you have it: “the truths of life” (i.e., the reality of evil, the struggle for survival), God (i.e., the great transcendent reality Who is there if seemingly distant at times), and “or else they’d have no heart to start at all” (i.e., the struggle to reconcile these two realities). I believe McCarthy’s novel The Road is about the exact same thing. So is No Country for Old Men.
McCarthy is a breath-takingly good writer. Truly. And All the Pretty Horses is a serious and important novel. It is what a great book should be. It tells a great story in a masterful way struggling with fundamental issues of existence along the way.