All the Pretty Horses
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Characters: John Grady Cole
‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Cormac McCarthy
All the Pretty Horses (1992)
coverIn All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy begins his Border Trilogy with a coming of age tale that is a departure from the bizarre richness and mysterious violence of his early novels, yet in many ways preserves the mystery and the richness in a more understated form. Like Blood Meridian, this novel follows a young man's journey to the regions of the unknown. John Grady Cole, more heroic than the protagonists of McCarthy's earlier novels, confronts the evil that is an inescapable part of the universe as well as the evil that grows out of his own ignorance and pride. His story is told in a style often restrained and simple, embedded with lyrical passages that echo his dreams and memory.
In the spring of 1948 on a small Texas ranch, sixteen year old John Grady Cole attends the funeral of his grandfather, with whom he has lived since his parents' separation. The grandfather's ranch has been left to John Grady's mother, a small-time actress who has no interest in it and will sell it. John Grady's father, psychologically damaged by World War II and now physically ill as well, tells his son goodbye. With no apparent future in Texas, and sensing the threat of the new era to the traditional life he values, John Grady urges his old friend Rawlins to accompany him to Mexico. There, John Grady will find that his innocence, or ignorance, will ultimately lead him close to destruction.
Before reaching the border they meet Jimmy Blevins, a dangerous young boy on a magnificent horse. Even though Cole and Rawlins do not trust Blevins and are sure his horse is stolen, they allow him to join them despite their doubts. As they ride into Mexico, they realize that they are no longer in a world that they can understand. When Blevins' clothes and horse disappear during a thunderstorm, they search a nearby Mexican town, where they find the clothes and finally the horse. In spite of Rawlins' voiced forebodings, Blevins steals the horse back, and as John Grady and Rawlins flee the town Blevins gallops past them, pursued by armed men.
John Grady and Rawlins ride south, coming at last to a ranch, the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Conception. As they talk with the vaqueros about the possibility of employment, John Grady sees a beautiful girl on a black horse, Alejandra, the daughter of hacendado Don Hector Rocha y Villareal. The heir of an aristocratic family, Don Hector is avidly interested in breeding wild mountain horses with his own stock, so John Grady and Rawlins join the vaqueros; John Grady amazes everyone with his ability to break the wild horses quickly and gently.
When Don Hector questions Cole about his past, he omits the episode with Blevins and the fact that he and Rawlins may now be wanted as accomplices in Blevins's horse theft. Concerned about his blossoming relationship with Alejandra, Duena Alfonsa, Don Hector's aunt and Alejandra's godmother, warns John Grady away from the rebellious girl, and informs him that Don Hector will never allow her to marry an American, especially a poor one. But Alejandra comes to him one night and they become lovers.
A few days later John Grady and Rawlins are arrested and taken to a jail in Encantada, where Blevins is already imprisoned for the murder of three men. While the three Americans are transported to the state prison at Saltillo, Blevins is taken from the group and shot. At the prison, they are questioned and beaten, and Rawlins is injured seriously. John Grady, attacked by another prisoner, whom he must kill, learns that evil exists not only in the world but in himself. When he and Rawlins are suddenly released as mysteriously as they were arrested, Rawlins returns to Texas.
But John Grady goes back to La Purisima to search for Alejandra, who is not there. Once again Duena Alfonsa makes clear to him the impossibility of the match. She tells her own story of the power of ignorance and evil (her love for a man who was killed by a mob after helping depose the dictator Diaz) and of her determination to protect Alejandra. Although John Grady does meet Alejandra one last time at a hotel in Zacatecas, it is only as a farewell: she chooses her family's approval (and perhaps their money). In pain, Cole returns to Encantada where he finds Blevins's horse, innocent like all animals and yet the cause of much death and loss. John Grady captures both the horse and the brutal police captain who shot Blevins, and heads homeward. En route, the captain is seized by brigands with a score to settle with him, and John Grady finally returns to Texas.
He finds even less there than before: his father and his childhood nurse are both dead. He rides on with the stolen horse, seeking to restore it to its rightful owner. John Grady has learned, but not yet enough; he has left home and returned a changed man, but there is no home to receive him. All the Pretty Horses is a hero's quest without a neat resolution, a book in which the strange light of mythic struggles shines through the quick-paced adventure.
The Border Trilogy continues with Volume Two, The Crossing, and concludes with the third volume, Cities of the Plain.
Cormac McCarthy: A Biography
Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island on July 20, 1933. He is the third of six children (the eldest son) born to Charles Joseph and Gladys Christina McGrail McCarthy (he has two brothers and three sisters). Originally named Charles (after his father), he renamed himself Cormac after the Irish King (another source says that McCarthy's family was responsible for legally changing his name to the Gaelic equivalent of "son of Charles").
In 1937, when he was four, the family moved to Knoxville, and his father became a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority (legal staff 1934-67; chief counsel 1958-67). In 1967, the McCarthys moved from Knoxville to Washington, D.C., where Charles was the principal attorney in a law firm until his retirement.
Cormac was raised Roman Catholic. He attended Catholic High School in Knoxville, then went to the University of Tennessee in 1951-52. His major: liberal arts. McCarthy joined the U.S. Air Force in 1953; he served four years, spending two of them stationed in Alaska, where he hosted a radio show.
From 1957-59, McCarthy returned to the university, where he published two stories, "A Drowning Incident" and "Wake for Susan" in the student literary magazine, The Phoenix, calling himself C. J. McCarthy, Jr. While at the university, he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing in 1959 and 1960.
McCarthy left the university again, this time for good. He went to Chicago, where he worked, apparently as an auto mechanic, while writing his first novel. He later married Lee Holleman, who had been a student at the University of Tennessee, and the couple settled in Sevier County, Tennessee. They had one son, Cullen. Some time later, their marriage ended. (Lee McCarthy is the author of several books of poetry, including Desire's Door.)
Before his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published (1965 — McCarthy's editor at Random House was Faulkner's long-time editor, Albert Erskine), McCarthy had received a traveling fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1965, using this money, he left America on the liner Sylvania, intending to visit the home of his Irish ancestors (a King Cormac McCarthy built Blarney Castle). While on the trip, he met Anne DeLisle, a young English singer/dancer working on the ship; they were married in England in 1966. Another grant was given McCarthy in 1966, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant (1966-68). He and Anne toured southern England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. Then they settled on the island of Ibiza, which was a kind of artist's colony at the time. Here, McCarthy completed revisions of Outer Dark.
In 1967, though, possibly at Anne's urging, the McCarthys returned to America. They moved to Rockford, Tennessee, a town near Knoxville. According to Anne, the McCarthys lived in a rented house ($50 per month — to live at a pig farm). Outer Dark was published by Random House in 1968. The reviews were again good, as they had been for The Orchard Keeper.
1969 saw the arrival of another fellowship, this time the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing. He and his wife moved into a barn near Louisville, Tennessee. McCarthy renovated the barn himself--entirely. Anne states that he added, among other things, a stone room and chimney. All the stones he gathered, all the wood he cut and kiln dried himself. Additionally, for his new fireplace, McCarthy salvaged bricks from the boyhood home of James Agee, which was being leveled to make way for downtown urban renewal in Knoxville.
Child of God was published in 1973. Inspired by actual events in Sevier County, it garnered mixed reviews, some praising it as great, while others found it despicable.
From 1974-75, McCarthy worked on the screenplay for a PBS film called The Gardener's Son, which premiered in January 1977. This screenplay, too, was based on actual historical events; the locale was South Carolina. A revised version of the screenplay was later published by Ecco Press.
Anne DeLisle and Cormac McCarthy were separated in 1976 (no children), and McCarthy moved soon after to El Paso, Texas, where he still lives. They were divorced a few years later.
In 1979, McCarthy published his fourth novel, Suttree, a book which had occupied his writing life on and off for twenty or so years. It was said by many to be McCarthy's best work to date, and some critics still maintain that it is his finest novel. However, the book drew some negative reviews, too. At least one reviewer (who wrote for the Memphis Press Scimitar) was roundly rebuked in a letter to the editor written by novelist and historian Shelby Foote.
1981 brought another grant to McCarthy's door (or, more literally, to McCarthy's room in a motel run by a friend in Knoxville), this time a MacArthur Fellowship — one of their so-called genius grants. McCarthy used this money to live on while writing his next novel, an apocalyptic western set in Texas and Mexico during the 1840s and based heavily on actual historical events.
Blood Meridian was published in 1985, but received little review attention at the time. Now, however, it is considered a turning point in his career. Some critics prefer his recent western writing, of which Blood Meridian was the first example. Others feel that he has strayed too far from his roots, that his westerns lack something. But Blood Meridian, followed closely by Suttree, is now generally regarded as McCarthy's finest work to date. McCarthy did extensive research for the novel, and it is based quite heavily on actual events. The author visited all the locales of the book and even learned Spanish to further his research.
After the retirement of Albert Erskine, McCarthy moved from Random House to Alfred A. Knopf. There, under the editorial advisement of Gary Fisketjon, McCarthy began to get exposure. In connection with the book's publication and as a favor to his retiring editor Albert Erskine, he granted The New York Times Magazine the sole interview [link requires registration] to which he has ever submitted. All the Pretty Horses, the first volume of The Border Trilogy, was published by Knopf in 1992. Unlike McCarthy's earlier books, this one became a publishing sensation, garnering many excellent reviews. It became a New York Times bestseller, and sold 190,000 copies in hardcover within the first six months of publication. It finally gave McCarthy the wide readership that had eluded him for many years.
McCarthy used the money he had made from All the Pretty Horses to buy a new pickup truck. He kept on writing.
McCarthy edited a play he had written in the mid-1970s, which was published in the summer of 1994 by Ecco Press. Called The Stonemason, the tragedy explores the fortunes of three generations of a black family in Kentucky. Shortly after the publication of The Stonemason, Knopf released the second volume of The Border Trilogy, The Crossing. It began life with a first printing of 200,000 copies, a large printing for a work of literary fiction. Sales were brisk enough to justify the second printing of 25,000 more copies before the end of the first month after publication. The book features the tale of Billy Parham's attempt to return a trapped she-wolf to its home in the northern Mexican mountains and the tragic consequences of his adventure.
The third volume of The Border Trilogy was published in 1998; Cities of the Plain, unites John Grady Cole, the main character of All the Pretty Horses, with The Crossing's Billy Parham, and centers on Cole's doomed relationship with a Mexican prostitute. Not as well-received by critics as the first two books in the Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain is nonetheless notable for its epilogue, which reaches back to Suttree in its imagery and simultaneously casts the entire Border Trilogy in a new and fascinating light, unifying the previous two volumes of the trilogy.
Sometime around the publication of Cities of the Plain, McCarthy married for a third time; he and his wife Jennifer have one child. The McCarthys have also moved from El Paso; they now reside in Santa Fe, New Mexico. McCarthy has continued writing; his next novel, No Country for Old Men, is due in July 2005 from Alfred A. Knopf.
Except for a few odds and ends (his favorite novel is Melville's Moby-Dick; he doesn't care for the work of Henry James, he doesn't like to talk about writing, etc.), that's more or less what we know about Cormac McCarthy.
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