Cormac McCarthy is a spare writer. Lots of detail and almost poetic language. But this is an introvert’s book. The characters talk, but there is no extra meandering dialogue. Dialogue has purpose.
McCarthy seems ideally suited to write about the idealized lone western male. His characters are self-sufficient, hard, tragic, honest to a fault, do not expect anyone to help them, but want to help others if they can.
In All the Pretty Horses (I have not seen the movie, so I do not know how it compares), John Grady Cole leaves home at 16 with his best friend. After his parent’s divorce, his mother wants nothing to do with ranch life and his father is left without a ranch (or anything else). He can give John nothing that he wants or needs. John and Rawlins (17) head to Mexico to see if they can find the rancher’s life that they seek.
Along the way, Jimmy Blevins, a 13 or 14 year old run away and troublemaker, joins up with them. Cole as the leader of the group allows Blevins to join them because it is clear that Blevins can not care for himself. Cole knows he will regret the decision and the theme is set with the Cole’s wise word:
“Every dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it. It was never the dumb thing. It was always the choice I made before it.”
They make their way across the border, work their way through the border villages and come to the Mexican ranch land they they have dreamed of. Blevins is separated from the other two by his own stubbornness and stupidity. But Cole and Rawlins find their place at a well run ranch. Cole’s skill with horses and hard work wins him a place among the ranch hands. His intelligence and determination earns the respect of both the owner and the owner’s spinster sister.
But it is the daughter that Cole really wants. And she wants him. It is culture, tradition and class that keep them apart.
This is a simple story. It is almost a romance. But McCarthy does not write simple romance stories. He writes brutally tragic stories where even honesty and virtue are rewarded with judgement and pain.
McCarthy is a truly great author. But he is not for everyone. This is a slow story. It is violent. It does not have a lot of dialogue. But it does communicate truth in a way that only story can. The truth that it communicates is that the world is broken by sin. And even those that strive after the right thing are affected by their own inevitable sin and the sin of those around them. There is very little grace in McCarthy’s world. This is an Old Testament’s view of the world. McCarthy is one the prophets that is telling the world about the coming judgement.