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Dream Work

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

by Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 302 pp., $21.00

1.

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 cuts the child’s throat:

The man took hold of the child and lifted it up. It was watching the fire. Holme saw the blade wink in the light like a long cat’s eye slant and malevolent and a dark smile erupted on the child’s throat and went all broken down the front of it. The child made no sound. It hung there with its one eye glazing over like a wet stone and the black blood pumping down its naked belly.

There are further horrors in Child of God, the story of Lester Ballard, whose father hanged himself when the boy was nine. Lester grows up a crazed necrophile. “Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them,” the narrator says of him. Lester kills several women, brings them to a cave where he adorns their corpses and makes love to them. This one, for instance:

He would arrange her in different positions and go out and peer in the window at her. After a while he just sat holding her, his hands feeling her body under the new clothes. He undressed her very slowly, talking to her. Then he pulled off his trousers and lay next to her. He spread her loose thighs. You been wantin it, he told her.

The characters in these three novels are like recently arrived primates, each possessing a spinal column but little or no capacity of mind or consciousness. A few of the minor characters are ethically precocious; that is, they are kind by nature and instinct, like the doctor who helps poor Rinthy. But most of them, and especially Culla, live upon a subsistence level of feeling and cognition. They meet the world without the mediation of law, morality, religion, or politics, and therefore they assume that its power is absolute and arbitrary. In Democracy in America Tocqueville says that “the social conditions and institutions of democracy impart certain peculiar tendencies to all the imitative arts,…The soul is often left out of the picture, which portrays the body only; movement and sensation take the place of feeling and thought; finally realism takes the place of the ideal.” McCarthy’s first novels imply that these dispositions are innate and incorrigible; that they obtain even where democracy has not yet been practiced.

This may explain why McCarthy appears to have little interest in plot, the development or complication of a story. His novels are episodic, rampant with incidents, but each of the incidents is placed at the same distance from the reader. The effect of this procedure is that a scene of violence and bloodshed, excruciating while it is going on, seems to compose itself almost at once into a nature morte, and it is amazing to see this occur. I am reminded of Freud’s account of the work of dreaming in The Interpretation of Dreams. He says that the dream-work “does not think, calculate or judge in any way at all; it restricts itself to giving things a new form.” The incidents in McCarthy’s novels are not discriminated, adjudicated for significance, or pointed toward a climax, a disclosure, or a resolution. The new form they are given is that of being released from the observances of morality or other judgment.

In Child of God we read of “old buried wanderings, struggles, scenes of death…old comings and going.” But we are not encouraged to ask what these might mean or whether they entail a motive other than survival. As Elizabeth Bishop wrote in “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’ ” Not by and then and then and then. McCarthy’s novels don’t make me ask: What is to happen next and is a significant pattern or form to be disclosed at last? His episodes are produced not to be interrogated or understood within some large myth or other system of value. They are there to be sensed, to be seen. The appalling quality of each deed is its emptiness, as if it were done before anyone thought of any meaning it might have. Conduct is predicated upon some primitive energy, and when it is vicious beyond need it is merely a splurge of force that knows nothing else to do. In Blood Meridian the Judge buys two pups and immediately drowns them. The deed is of no account, like the earth itself in these books, which has presence and force but not a trace of meaning. Even when the scene is genial, we are invited to look at it without thinking beyond the thing seen. As in The Orchard Keeper:

Light pale as milk guided the old man’s steps over the field to the creek and then to the mountain, stepping into the black wall of pine-shadows and climbing up the lower slopes out into the hardwoods, bearded hickories trailing grapevines, oaks and crooked waterless cottonwoods, a quarter mile from the creek now, past the white chopped butt of a bee tree lately felled, past the little hooked Indian tree and passing silent and catlike up the mountain in the darkness under latticed leaves scudding against the sky in some small wind.

This narrative procedure is Dutch rather than Italian, according to a distinction Svetlana Alpers makes in The Art of Describing, her study of Dutch painting. An Italian painting is narrative, dramatic, theatrical, “a framed surface or pane situated at a certain distance from a viewer who looks through it at a second or substitute world.” A Dutch painting gives the look of things and assumes that that is enough, it does not incite the eye to go beyond or through the canvas to divine a story behind it. Meaning coincides with what is offered as visible. Each of McCarthy’s early novels conveys a multitude of scenes, often loosely affiliated or not at all, and soon we start feeling that the world or life has presented itself in these ways without human intervention and is not to be asked why or wherefore. If human action in the world of these novels is arbitrary, occasionally kind but mostly red in tooth and claw, there is no point in looking further for causes and explanations. In Blood Meridian again the Judge finds an Apache child, keeps it with him for three days, dandling it on his knee, and then with motiveless malignity scalps it. There is no merit in looking for a reason.

Yet in Suttree and Blood Meridian there is also a revision of these assumptions. These books, too, are panoramic, picturesque, one picture gives way to the next. We are not to assume that each object of attention is organically or otherwise related to the next one as a phase in a story being told. But to the spinal column there has been added in at least a few specimens a brain capable of self-consciousness and wit. Suttree is set along the banks of the Tennessee River at Knoxville, where Cornelius Suttree, a dropout, has made himself a shantyboat and gets a poor living by selling fish to local eating-houses. He spends most of his time “in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” His friend Gene Harrogate lives on his wits and odd jobs: robbing telephone boxes, poisoning bats for sale to the authorities, removing the upholstery from wrecked cars (under the seat of one of which he finds a human eye).

People in this book tend to get shot or to turn up dead in the river or to cause mayhem with bottles in the Indian Rock roadhouse. Near the end, Suttree takes to the Gatlinburg mountains, hallucinates, nearly goes mad, but survives to see the world as if it might at least sustain a question or two:

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