Cormac McCarthy, one of the most important American writers of the last 50 years, has died at the age of 89. His writing career spanned from 1965 until the publication of his last novels in 2022. He is best known for the novels The Road and No Country for Old Men, both adapted successfully for the screen. His work, certainly in style, is often compared to that of Faulkner, in that his control of language and punctuation defies our conventional expectations but maintains the reader’s attention and understanding. His use of language and imagery, and his comparison to great writers of the early 20th century, has led to critics labelling him a late modernist who challenged the emerging orthodoxies of postmodernist indeterminacy. It was the Border Trilogy novels – All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998) – which brought him to public prominence. These novels reflect on the frontier as a key part of America’s founding myth. The best of these, for me, is All the Pretty Horses. A revisionist Western, it transplants the battle between man and the wilderness from Texas to Mexico. John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins cross from modern Texas into what the sixteen year olds hope will be the unspoilt wilderness that their predecessors tamed on the American frontier. The novel is a quest narrative and a bildungsroman.
The opening pages encourage us to think that we are in the 19th century. The candle, the hat, the portraits of ancestors all signify an earlier time than the actual setting. Death, repeated here, suggests a finality, an ending; but also the possibility of new beginnings. The calf bawling and the prairie reveal to the reader that this is an agricultural area and that we are in American West. Also, the train challenges our expectations. It symbolises change and industrialisation, reinforced by the language: ‘boring’, ‘howling’, ‘bellowing’. That the train comes from the East, all that the West has stood in contrast to, is important. The ‘endless fenceline’ demonstrates the scale of the landscape. Fences are also symbolic of the taming nature and the domestication of the land. Later, the boys have to pull out the staples to allow the horses to pass through fences. The Mexican cook suggests that the boundaries between the cultures either side of the border are no longer as distinct as they used to be, and also Texas’ history as a part of Mexico.
The themes of the novel are very much those of the conventional Western; the battle between man and nature, a nostalgia for a simpler way of life that is attuned to the rhythms of the land, and established beliefs. Grady is trying to locate himself in relation to the wilderness in which he finds himself. He feels that the wildness inside him, a sort of primordial urge, needs to be reflected by the landscape. The narrative suggests that Mexico offers this possibility in ways that Texas couldn’t, particularly when he hears a wolf howl. The contemplation of God and religion is important as the westward expansion of America was often seen as religious obligation. The boys are to be transformed by their encounter with the pristine wilderness of Mexico, which substitutes for the Old West, into self-reliant, independent and resourceful cowboys. The zacateros they encounter on the Mexican plains represent simple agricultural workers responding to the shifts of the seasons. While they are friendly, they are not represented in a romantic way, instead being dishevelled and dirty.
Their exploration of this ‘new Eden’ are punctuated with places that represent both the garden and hell. The Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion (I’ll leave you to do your own translation. The reader is pushed to translate a lot of Spanish dialogue, forcing us into active readers) is vibrant and abundant with nature’s bounty. America is a nation whose identity is shaped through this idea of the battle between the settlers and nature. The horses are symbolic of nature and the wilderness. Grady’s ability to subordinate the horses reflects the ambitions of the early American settlers. However, there are two ambiguities here: the horses were introduced by Europeans and, crucially, once nature has been tamed, the frontiersman must move on to seek out new challenges and new wildernesses. This section is a biblical allegory here. We can see Grady as an American Adam in this Edenic landscape, Alejandra as the sexual temptation and Don Hector is the God-like authority who casts Adam from paradise.
In contrast, the prison the boys end up in as punishment for their transgressions demonstrates that Mexico is not a savage wilderness where they will find challenges on the journey towards manhood, but is a society they are unable to interpret. In Part III they virtually abandon travel by horse and instead become very 20th century, riding in trucks and travelling by train.
As Cole rides back through northern Mexico it reveals itself to be far more industrialised than the idealised natural landscape he had seen it for on his journey south. The crossing back into Texas is less detailed, more matter of fact. That it is Thanksgiving, an American holiday celebrating the expansion of the nation is symbolic. We see that Cole is a cowboy out of his time. Towards the end, a number of thematic concerns combine. The industrial nature of the Texas landscape is illustrated by the city lights, the highways and the oil fields. When Cole speaks Spanish to the Mexican girl at the judge’s house, she responds in English.
The certainties of the American West as a place of mythical origins is dismantled by the book’s temporal moment (mid-20th Century) and the harsh realities of Mexico. However, as a bildungsroman, it traces Cole’s development from the innocence of youth to the self-reliance and self-knowledge of manhood.