Arts, Books — July 24, 2012 9:50 am

All the Pretty Horses: Cowboy Up!

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You know what’s strange? Women who like Westerns. I hadn’t realized this until I signed up for my first online dating site and guys were always impressed by the fact that Tombstone is at the top of my list of favorite movies. Incidentally, Mr. Smith and I met on Match.com. So don’t give up hope, people. The love of your life is out there somewhere, hunched over as he stares into the dim glow of his laptop from the corner of his dark studio apartment, too nervous and broken to go outside and introduce himself to someone in real life…

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, Westerns. I love them. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe because I’m a California girl through and through (Northern California, mind you). Or maybe because I’ve been riding horses since I was 8 years old. In any case, it’s traditionally a more masculine genre, which means–unfortunately–that a lot of females end up missing out on the beauty of the open spaces and rambling rides and the taciturn characters brimming with an overly rigid sense of justice. I think a lot of people, men and women alike, are just plain bored with the pacing, too. Westerns tend to move as quickly as the slowest cow, you know?

I get it. I do. And, I’m here today to challenge you to give the genre a try with a moderately sized novel by a great American novelist: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (1993). Perhaps you’ve read McCarthy’s The Road, which became pretty popular a couple years ago after the movie based on the book came out in 2009. (Apparently The Road was also part of Oprah’s Book Club? Whatever.)  If you have read it, then you’ll know that McCarthy has a very distinct style. His phrasing is compact, almost terse, and he looooves using pronouns in lieu of actual names. I absolutely recommend The Road–be warned, though, it is gruesome and sad–but I really, really want to advocate for All the Pretty Horses.

AtPH (as I’ll be referring to the book from now on) is the perfect text to read for a study of not only what an author makes happen in a story, but how she makes it happen.  This is called ‘close reading’; or, as my latest set of professors would say, “reading like a writer.” It’s what gets me excited about a truly good book: recognizing the skill, the subtle intentions, the brilliant strategies that an author employs to create the sensations that I feel in response to the text. Recognizing a talent for the craft of anything you know from experience to be delicate work is invigorating and inspiring.  Reading McCarthy is like that: an encounter with a true craftsman, which is why I would love for you to get your hands on this book.

Although I’ve referred to AtPH as a Western, it actually takes place in Texas and Mexico, so not quite the most contemporary definition of the American “West.” Still, there are cowboys and ranches and cattle and run-ins with the Law–all that good stuff, I promise. Though I love the setting (and the pretty horses, let’s be honest) what really blew me away about this novel is how McCarthy’s writing creates the feeling of the environment and movement of the characters by its very style. Now, I don’t mean that McCarthy’s descriptions are vivid; because, quite frankly, they’re not. Adjectives aren’t really his thing. Instead, it’s the lack of those qualifiers that gives the reader a sense of the barrenness of the landscape and the simplicity of the men’s minds. This is not to say that the characters are stupid; quite the opposite is true, in fact. But these men (and a couple of women) come from a different time and a different culture where there is little angst and you’ll find no one’s heart on his sleeve.

In addition, McCarthy’s seeming aversion to punctuation allows the sentences to roll along like the lope of the horses that his people ride across the Mexican desert. For the reader, the pace of each sentence takes some getting used to. Depend on commas for focus and reflection and you’ll soon find yourself suddenly aware that you don’t have much idea of what happened over the last three pages. But stick with the book on its own terms–stay in the saddle and grip with your knees–and you’ll find the words carry you along, abreast of the young men out to find new life in an old country. On the other hand, when you do find commas, you will notice that the characters are on the ground, hashing out their conflicts. Here we must stand with them as they unravel the complications that keep them from the straightforward task of riding on.

In the end, all of this English major speak is to say that All the Pretty Horses is a wonderful book.  It is slow, in the rambling way that all Westerns are; so perhaps it’s not the ideal poolside or airport read. But if you want to learn about a culture that is not ours and is yet not very removed from us by time or geography–a piece of our past here in the United States that the history books won’t find eventful enough–then this could be a good read for you.  Or, if you’ve never read McCarthy but have always been curious, I think this novel is a great example of his utter skill.

Enjoy, my friends! Tell me how it goes.

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