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:
It seemed to rain all that winter. The few snowfalls turned soon to a gray slush, but the brief white quietude among the Christmas buntings and softlit shopwindows seemed a childhood dream of the season and the snow in its soft falling sifting down evoked in the city a surcease nigh to silence. Silent the few strays that entered the Huddle dusting their shoulders and brushing from their hair this winter night’s benediction. Suttree by the window watched through the frosted glass. How the snow fell cherry red in the soft neon flush of the beersign like the slow dropping of blood. The clerks and the curious are absent tonight. Blind Richard sits with his wife. The junkman drunk, his mouth working mutely and his neck awry like a hanged man’s. A young homosexual alone in the corner crying. Suttree among others, sad children of the fates whose home is the world, all gathered here a little while to forestall the going there.
Later, Suttree is allowed a highfalutin soliloquy in which he claims to repent of one deed only:
One thing. I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it and that I would stand a stone in the very void where all would read my name. Of that vanity I recant all.
Blood Meridian, one of the most powerful American novels I have read, achieves its grandeur by not letting the world and life utter themselves without incurring rebuke. The story starts in 1849 when a boy, “the kid,” arrives in Nacogdoches, Texas, having run away from home. He joins a pirate army to fight in Mexico. There are appalling scenes of carnage when they confront a band of Comanches. The kid survives to join the Judge and other killers, led by one Glanton, as mercenaries, hired by Governor Trias to kill the Apache leader Gomez; $1000 for Gomez’s scalp, $100 a head for scalps of other Indians. These men live to kill or be killed. They range through the Southwest for murder and pillage, killing anything that moves, with guns for the distant work, knives for close work upon Apaches, Gilenos, and Yumas.
Meanwhile the Judge emerges as chief personage, a scholar of sorts, Darwinian note-taker, amateur biologist, reader of sign, a Nietzsche before he could have read Nietzsche, and so psychologically opaque that he seems a force of demented nature. One of the most remarkable images in the book has the Judge and an idiot boy pursuing the kid and the ex-priest Tobin:
More strangely he carried a parasol made from rotted scraps of hide stretched over a framework of rib bones bound with strips of tug. The handle had been the foreleg of some creature and the judge approaching was clothed in little more than confetti so rent was his costume to accommodate his figure. Bearing before him that morbid umbrella with the idiot in its rawhide collar pulling at the lead he seemed some degenerate entrepreneur fleeing from a medicine show and the outrage of the citizens who’d sacked it.
Given to high rhetoric, the Judge sounds like Melville’s Captain Ahab or a crazed philosopher of the Enlightenment:
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.
A keeper. A keeper or overlord.
Why not say keeper then?
Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.
At the end it is the Judge who speaks for justice by despising it; who denounces and pursues the kid to the last murder because the kid could have killed the Judge and chose not to. The Judge visits him in prison:
He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay. Even the cretin acted in good faith according to his parts. For it was required of no man to give more than he possessed nor was any man’s share compared to another’s. Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not. Can you tell me who that one was?
Here as earlier in his pre-Nietzschean mode, the Judge insists that “moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak” and that “historical law subverts it at every turn.” Like Hitler, the Judge gulls his people into the conviction that they have been chosen to lead the march of historical destiny and that no moral consideration can impede them. Only the kid knows and acts otherwise, and he is inarticulate except in deed to the end.
Who speaks, then, for reality and justice in these novels? The narrator; or, rather, the narrative voice, since no character in the stories is given the role of narrator, except for a while in Child of God, where the narrator is a local resident, gossip, and mythmaker. In the other novels we have impersonal narration or—it amounts to the same thing—“free indirect style” which recalls for modern use the ancient styles, often biblical or epic, that have served a similar genre. As in the Blood Meridian description of Apaches riding across the playa to attack the mercenaries:
The riders were beginning to appear far out on the lake bed, a thin frieze of mounted archers that trembled and veered in the rising heat. They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.
Some readers have felt that McCarthy’s high style, even with the examples of Melville, Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Faulkner to warrant it, is bombastic. Here are the mercenaries from Blood Meridian:
They wandered the borderland for weeks seeking some sign of the Apache. Deployed upon that plane they moved in a constant elision, ordained agents of the actual dividing out the world which they encountered and leaving what had been and what would never be alike extinguished on the ground behind them. Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.
That is English or American written as if it were Spanish, and if it were Spanish one would call it Gongorism, gongorismo, “a style in imitation of the ornate style of Góngora y Argote 1561–1627,” the dictionaries say. But it is English or American, so a question of bombast arises.
But I would defend many, most, nearly all of McCarthy’s high passages by noting how much they have to do. They have to speak for characters who cannot speak as eloquently for themselves, as in All the Pretty Horses:
He lay on his back in his blankets and looked out where the quartermoon lay cocked over the heel of the mountains. In that false blue dawn the Pleiades seemed to be rising up into the darkness above the world and dragging all the stars away, the great diamond of Orion and Cepella and the signature of Cassiopeia all rising up through the phosphorous dark like a sea-net. He lay a long time listening to the others breathing in their sleep while he contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within.
McCarthy’s styles have also to speak up for values the characters could not express; for regions, places, landscapes, vistas, movements of the seasons, trees, rain, snow, dawn, sunset, outer and inner weather; and for times not our time. For such purposes, McCarthy commands many styles and dictions. Reading these novels, I was often lost among unfamiliar words, like the mercenary with suzerain. In Suttree alone I was grounded by these and had to go to the dictionaries: mordant (a reagent for fixing dyes), muricate (covered with many short spikes, and therefore used by McCarthy of Christ’s crown of thorns), trematode (a kind of worm), soricine (of a shrewmouse), and tribades (lesbians: “the sometime cries of buckled tribades in the hours toward dawn when trade was done”). Most of these are in the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, more useful than the Oxford English Dictionary when reading McCarthy’s Tex-Mex fiction. The hard words are always accurately used, I gather from the dictionaries, and they help McCarthy to control the pace of one’s reading and therefore the duration and quality of the attention one pays. A hard word slows you down, keeps you looking. As here, when Suttree visiting his Aunt Martha looks through her photograph album:
Old distaff kin coughed up out of the vortex, thin and cracked and macled and a bit redundant. The landscapes, old backdrops, redundant too, recurring unchanged as if they inhabited another medium than the dry pilgrims shored up on them. Blind moil in the earth’s nap cast up in an eyeblink between becoming and done. I am, I am. An artifact of prior races.
“Macled,” I find, means blurred. Note, too, that the eyeblink-state is not between “becoming” and its customary affiliate, “being.”
“So he thought about horses and they were always the right thing to think about,” we read of John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses. As it turns out, horses are also the right thing to dream about, far safer objects of vision than women:
That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.
The story involves to begin with two boys. John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins light out for Mexican territory and meet up with a still younger boy, Jimmy Blevins, who is riding a beautiful horse he may have stolen. In any case it is bound to arouse someone’s greed and make for trouble. The first and best part of the book deals with the loss and further theft of the horse and the boys’ plans to recover it. The relations between Jimmy, John Grady, and Lacey are convincingly delineated, and they point ahead to further discrepancies when life starts dividing them. Jimmy is lost, and the two boys ride into Mexico. They find jobs as ranch hands for the wealthy Don Hector. For a while, things go well. John Grady has a remarkable feeling for horses, their capacities and moods. Paradise for him, up to this point, consists of horses and the mesas on which he rides them. The boys round up wild horses and John Grady breaks them, talking to each horse as he presses himself against its shoulder. This world of horses, land, mountains, dawns, and sunsets is the ultimate good or so it seems.
Unfortunately for the novel and for John Grady, Don Hector has a beautiful daughter, Alejandra. The first stages of courtship between boy and girl are conducted on horseback. Symbolic portent is provided by John Grady’s riding a stallion bareback while the girl rides a black Arabian. Trouble begins when Alejandra insists on riding the stallion and Don Hector’s informants bring the news back to him and to the Dueña Alfonsa, the girl’s grand-aunt and guardian. When John Grady and Alejandra become lovers, he must be punished. And Rawlins, too, who has warned John Grady off the girl but is now in trouble just as deep. The boys are arrested and taken off for jailing and interrogation to Encintada, where they meet Jimmy, in jail for shooting the man who stole his gun. So the story proceeds.
In the third part, John Grady and Lacey are released, bought out of jail by the Dueña because she intends bribing John Grady to stay away from Alejandra. Rawlins decides he’s had enough of Mexico and goes home. John Grady makes an operatic hero’s decision to go back to the ranch and settle matters with the Dueña and Alejandra. The Dueña gives him money but in return he has to listen to a tedious recital of the history of Mexico and the Dueña’s more personal story. There is much intimation of class, ambition for one’s children, family honor, and would John Grady please take a strong hint and a fistful of pesos and clear off, please? Not so: he insists on meeting the girl, who has no scruples about sex but in consideration of family honor won’t go away with him. The dialogue at this point is the kind regularly heard in oldfashioned films from high-born girls living in historically oppressed countries. At one point Alejandra narrates the death of her heroic grandfather instead of engaging with John Grady in reasonable conversation:
He died in this strange place. Esquina de la Calle del Deseo y el Callejón del Pensador Mexicano. There was no mother to cry. As in the corridos. Nor little bird that flew. Just the blood on the stones. I wanted to show you. We can go.
Quién fue el Pensador Mexicano?
Un poeta. Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi. He had a life of great difficulty and died young. As for the Street of Desire it is like the Calle de Noche Triste. They are but names for Mexico. We can go now.
After that, the novel has only fifty pages in which to recover its presence of mind, and that is not enough. There is a strong scene in which the bereft John Grady arms himself, returns to Encintada to punish his old interrogator and get back Rawlins’s horse. But the novel otherwise has gone soft. John Grady has to prove in court that he is the true owner of the horse he is leading about. He tells the whole story in thirty minutes. Society, in the person of a benign judge, not only assigns ownership to John Grady but tells him how wonderful he is:
The constable is instructed to return the property in question to Mr Cole. Mr Smith, you see that the boy gets his horse. Son, you’re free to go and the court thanks you for your testimony. I’ve sat on the bench in this county since it was a county and in that time I’ve heard a lot of things that give me grave doubts about the human race but this aint one of em.
The novel has gone awry. In other passages the high rhetoric, for lack of answerable substance, virtually sinks poor John Grady, to whom metaphysical intimations are belatedly assigned:
He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.
It is hard to believe that this paragraph, the love story, the Dueña’s lecture, and the scene in court were written by the author of Blood Meridian and Suttree. What has gone wrong with his prose since the first part of the novel, the superb scenes between the three boys, where the dialogue is just as good as Twain’s in Huckleberry Finn? As in the scene where Jimmy Blevins offers to shoot anything that Lacey Rawlins throws in the air:
He stood with his back to the sun and the pistol hanging alongside his leg. Rawlins turned and grinned at John Grady. He held the billfold between his thumb and finger.
You ready, Annie Oakley? he said.
Waitin on you.
He pitched it up underhanded. It rose spinning in the air, very small against the blue. They watched it, waiting for him to shoot. Then he shot. The billfold jerked sideways off across the landscape and opened out and fell twisting to the ground like a broken bird.
The writing is as good as the shooting.
I can only think that McCarthy, who has appeared to be able to imagine anything, can’t bring himself to imagine the forms of civil life. He alludes to them, but not with credence or conviction. He is not good with village Romeos and Juliets or indeed with any lives that have entered upon communities, cultural interests, attended by customs, proprieties, and laws. In this respect he is closer to Kafka and Beckett than to Faulkner. He is one of those writers who exhibit in their truest work, however they act as citizens, a refusing imagination: it refuses to give credence to the world as it has come to be in its personal, social, and political forms. Lionel Trilling noted that “Kafka’s work gives very little recognition, if any at all, to the world in its ordinary actuality, as it is the object of our desires and wills, as we know it socially, politically, erotically, domestically; or, if it recognizes the world at all, it does so only through what it perceives of the radical incompatibility of world and mankind.” In McCarthy’s fiction the world is nature, deserts, mountains, rivers, snow, and lightning, and he writes of it in that character with reverence and wonder. His sense of the incompatibility of world and mankind arises from the human presence in that world. The presence has been wrong from the beginning. Original Sin, the Fall, is not man’s first disobedience, as Christianity says, but a fault in the character of the human presence in the world. The fault issues in violence, hatred, bloodshed, to which McCarthy gives not moral consent but imaginative credence. He has sympathy with that abyss.
All the Pretty Horses may indicate McCarthy’s desire to come in out of the cold of those Tennessee mountain winters, but his imagination is at its best there with Arthur Ownby or with the monstrous Judge of Blood Meridian drowning dogs. He is best with what nature gives or imposes, rather than with the observations of culture. The sex, for instance, between Suttree and Wanda is far more authentic than the love affair of John Grady and Alejandra. Wanda is as free of acculturation as Suttree would like to be. McCarthy’s imagination knows that state and that desire. But when Alejandra emerges from the shower wrapped in a towel and says to John Grady, “I love you. But I cannot,” we know that McCarthy is writing adrift from his talent. Any average Hollywood screenwriter could do that scene better.
So we have the first of three projected volumes. I look forward to the complete work but wish I could be assured that the trilogy has now disposed of the only doomed lovers we are to sigh over.
June 24, 1993