Dream Work

All the Pretty Horses: Vol. 1, The Border Trilogy

by Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 302 pp., $21.00

All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1992, is the first volume of The Border Trilogy, and Cormac McCarthy’s sixth novel. The earlier ones are The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), Suttree (1979), and Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985). McCarthy has been regarded as a writer’s writer, a craftsman, a rhetorician, but not likely to be popular. All the Pretty Horses has changed that impression: it has gained critical approval, and become a best seller. Reviewers are comparing him with Faulkner. McCarthy may be a recluse, but he is a famous one.

He was born in Rhode Island in 1933, spent most of his childhood in a town near Knoxville, Tennessee, moved about a good deal, joined the air force, took some courses at the University of Tennessee, and since 1976 has lived in El Paso, Texas. He has been married and divorced twice and has a son. That is all I know about him biographically. His first four novels are set in the vicinity of Maryville, Tennessee. Blood Meridian sends its characters from Texas to Mexico and California, All the Pretty Horses keeps them in Texas and Mexico. I assume that the remaining volumes of The Border Trilogy will stay in the same region.

These novels are hard to describe. It may help a little, but not much, if I give the gist of their stories. The Orchard Keeper is set in mountainous Tennessee in the years between 1918 and 1948, by my count. It tells of an old man, Arthur Ownby, living a grim life by himself in a mountain cabin; his dog, Scout; a boy, John Wesley Rattner, whose father has been killed in a fight with a whiskey bootlegger, Marion Sylder. A country bar burns down, the boy saves a dog from attack by a coon, and is befriended by Sylder. There are vivid descriptions of weather, snow, six days of rain, and sundry hardships. The book ends with an elegiac passage I find unconvincing:

They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.

In Outer Dark Rinthy Holme has a child by her brother Culla. Culla abandons the child in a local wood where it is found and taken away by a tinker. Rinthy wanders about trying to find the child or the tinker. Culla goes off to look for work, steals a squire’s boots, is pursued by four men, takes a ferry-boat to cross a river in high flood, and is nearly lost along with a terrified horse. Eventually he comes upon three men and the child—one of his eyes gone—at a campfire. One of the men …

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