on April 4, 2006
Here are three amazing books, and one amazing saga, all together in one brimming volume you can throw into a backpack.
The first novel, "All the Pretty Horses" is one of the most beautifully told stories I've ever read. Not only is the writing here packed with imagery, and the story one of McCarthy's most accessible, but the textures of the words used to describe the images are as lush and as enfolding as anything F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote--even when McCarthy's describing the driest of desert plains, the most desolate of ruins, or the emptiest of lives.
The book tells the story of two young friends who leave home in 1948 Texas to ride south into northern Mexico in search of SOMETHING. What happens along the way is tragic and amusing, lovely and gripping, real and amazing. McCarthy seems to paint every scene perfectly, yet he does so using the fewest amount of words possible, and the simplest of details.
"The gray and malignant dawn." "Stars falling down the long black slope of the firmament." "The shelving clouds." "Their windtattered fire." "Narrow spires of smoke standing vertically into the windless dawn so still the village seemed to hang by threads from the darkness."
Long sentences shroud the reader in the events of every scene, and the author's trademark quote-sign-less dialogue gives every conversation a very biblical feel.
The trilogy's second book, "The Crossing" has only thematic and geographical elements in common with the first. The story deals with a completely different character, Billy Parham, a son in a late-1930s New Mexican ranching family. Billy traps a wolf that has been killing his father's cattle but realizes he morally can't kill it and has to return it to its home in the mountains of old Mexico. Billy crosses the border into Mexico, and as he does he crosses from real life into a world of dreams, where everyone moves as if the air was liquid, where every ruin has an irretrievable story, where soot and heat and danger hang in the air, and where nothing ever goes as planned.
The story is not as streamlined or as focused as its thematic predecessor, "All the Pretty Horses," but that's not necessarily a shortcoming. The book sprawls out like a wide hot desert--curling north and south, east and west, across the present and into the past. The writing is as good as any writing I've ever read ever, and certain metaphors and feelings will stay with you for years. For example: the coals of a campfire seeming like an exposed piece of the core of the earth.
The trilogy's concluding part is "Cities of the Plain." The book has some shortcomings, but it's still one amazing piece of work. YOU try writing something this good.
In this book, John Grady Cole--the genius horsetrainer of "All the Pretty Horses"--and Billy Parham--the kindhearted nomad of "The Crossing"--come together as ranch hands on a New Mexico estancia. Here, you can see why this actually is a trilogy. Both characters are older than they were in the previous books--Billy much older--but both are kindred spirits whose stories connect with and affect each another.
"Cities of the Plain" tends more heavily toward the lengthy philosophical monologues that appear only occasionally in the trilogy's earlier volumes, and the whole story at moments goes a little bit long if you've just read the two previous books right before.
However, the writing is gorgeous, and haunting. In one passage, a dead calf's "ribcage lay with curved tines upturned on the gravel plain like some carnivorous plant brooding in the barren dawn." Yeah. Yeah!
And the ending--the ending is amazing. It might not be quite what you expect or ask for, but it is thrilling in its perfectness, in its completess, in how true it feels. It gave me chills of ecstasy. It left me holding the book like a priceless religious relic, re-reading its back cover, flipping back through it to parts I had marked, reluctant and unwilling to let go of these characters or their world.
Reading these collected books is like having a vision: I feel as if I should tell the world about it, but at the same time it seems so sacred and personal that maybe I should just keep it to myself and try to figure out why it came to me, into my life, into my head. These are books that deserve readers. Pick this volume up, and let it seep into your skin, let it open you to other worlds and people and ideas, and let it change you. Let it open your eyes to the world, and to the West, and to the goodness and the hope and the sadness that haunts the lives of all of us.
This is a saga made up of all those ineffable things that most of us just can't put into words. But here, somehow, Cormac McCarthy has managed to do just that. Here is the intangible, but tangible. Here is the unnameable, but named. Here are the thoughts you could never express, expressed. Here is a book worth reading, a book that will change you--you, and the way you see the world.
You read the first sentence of a Cormac McCarthy novel and you know that this is not Grisham or Connolly or Child or Crichton or King, certainly not Patterson, or anyone else writing fiction today. And before the first page is turned he has launched into one of his frenetic poetic riffs that lurches and rambles and stops and starts and doesn't care about punctuation and you can almost hear your high school English teacher scolding about grammar and run-on sentences but you know that she could never even hope to string words together like this even if she dared. And then you realize that maybe you've actually never really understood the English language at all because no one before has ever ripped it and bent it and twisted it as beautifully as McCarthy does while making it all look so easy.
So were it not for McCarthy's ferocious prose, "All the Pretty Horses" may have been just another coming of age story. But in McCarthy's special corner of hell, along with the obligatory introduction to "young love", passage to adulthood may include exile in a foreign country, being hunted on horseback across a barren desert, variously stabbed, shot, tortured, or imprisoned. John Grady Cole is a sixteen year-old son of a Texas rancher who, up until his grandfather's death, worked the ranch and developed an uncommon kinship with horses. With his grandfather gone, his father dying, and his mother flitting around the cultural scene in post-WWII San Antonio, John Grady sets out on horseback for Mexico with buddy Lacey Rawlings. What follows is an odyssey of restless youth across a rugged country, a bleak and sometimes bloody journey that is not without the humor and easy banter of young teenagers on their own; the "road trip" that turns nightmarish and accelerates the process of growing up into hyper drive.
John Grady is an endearing character; there are no Holden Caulfields in the Texas borderlands. A stoic young cowboy, he has had the youthful innocence to which he is entitled ripped out too early, replaced by a work-hardened cynicism and homespun wisdom of the Texas plains. The reader cares for John Grady in the way of the classic Greek heroes, watching helplessly as the protagonist stone-by-stone lays the foundation of his own downfall. This is Cormac McCarthy, and therefore not a fairy tale; the reader would be naïve to expect an ending with a smiling John Grady riding into the sunset with his girl's arms around his denim shirt. But since it is Cormac McCarthy, you can expect unparalleled prose that delivers its message with the power and subtlety of a cattle prod. An American classic - required reading.
on August 3, 2000
These three novels should establish Cormac McCarthy as a worthy inheritor of the mantle worn by William Faulkner. The first, All The Pretty Horses is probably the best because it introduces John Grady Cole, who should join the ranks of legendary fictional heroes. His story is concluded in Cities of the Plain the last of the trilogy which contains an account of a knife fight that is almost unbearable in it intensity. The second novel,The Crossing is in my opinion, the weakest of the three,although the first 100 or so pages which describe the relationship between a boy and a wolf he has trapped is as good as anything in the trilogy. McCarthys description of ranch life on the New Mexico-Mexico border in the 1940s and early '50s is so pure that one can almost feel the icy wind as it cuts through the characters as they ride south to meet their fate in old Mexico. This is a great book and Cormac McCarthy is among the greatest novelists of our time.
on June 27, 2000
I've read the entire Border Trilogy at least three times now, and I've read each of McCarthy's other novels at least once. Now, I'm dying to see what he writes next.
The language is lyrical and poetic, sometimes short and choppy in the language of McCarthy's young cowboy protagonists, sometimes long and surreal in his descriptions of horses, landscape, and dreams. The language finally emerges as a living character of the novel, equally shaping the narrative and its power, separate from the plot line and journey motif.
His storytelling ability is unmatched as he weaves storytelling characters into the bildungsromanesque journeys of John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. These interlocutors relate intricate stories that allow us to witness tales being both told and witnessed, creating a double effect on us through our connectivity to the characters. McCarthy uses his own wonderful narrative to reflect on the power of the narrative event and the act of storytelling. He truly raises the standard for today's writers, for not only does his language transcend the pitter-patter of most so-called literature, his ability to weave marvelous stories and reflect on his role as narrator makes him a writer worth reckoning with. In fact, I just completed a thesis based on this set of three novels for my MA in English at BYU. Read them in order, or read them separately, "All the Pretty Horses" will draw you in with its sometimes intense sometimes comical language and bloody violence. "The Crossing" will captivate you in its complexity and depth, as well as its realistic, terribly moving portrayal of a young man alone and lonely. Finally, "Cities of the Plain" will make you laugh and cry as the protagonists are brought together in a domestic setting and move toward their destinies, each preset by McCarthy himself.
Read everything he has written. You will ache for more.
Cormac McCarthy presents three tales about his young protagonists, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, in this trilogy of coming-of-age novels. By the time the third novel ends, with a somewhat unsatisfactory fast forward jump across nearly five decades, one's nerves and emotions are practically wrung out.
These two young men, each traveling through the Southwest on quests that conjure up perils matching those Odysseus faced, are forced into choices with graver consequences than either can foresee. Their independent quests, which form the basis of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, intertwine in Cities of the Plain. Death is no stranger in any of the three books, but by the end of Cities on the Plain, it is irrelevant.
Though much has been written about the two central characters and their fates, in my view, McCarthy tends to amplify his characters more than he develops them for there is a sameness to each from start to end more in keeping with archetypes than real people.
McCarthy will build the tension to an almost maddening level at times, relying on vivid, detailed depictions of the now lost Southwest to slow the momentum. At times I felt like I was waiting for an iceberg to scuttle my ship: I could see its slow approach but could not forestall the inevitable. The layers and layers of description finely permeate your consciousness so that the clouds of dust, the smell of sweaty horses, the ache from a knife puncture, cold rain sliding under the collar down the spine take on the vividness usually imparted more powerfully by poetry than prose.
Sometimes, I must confess, the clipped style of the conversations and stacks of similes bothered me a bit because of what was not being said or shown but what lurked unstated like those half-formed thoughts we all harbor.
Yet writing with this level of detail about the land, the weather, the loneliness of souls on a quest, can take its toll and for all the pleasure these books bring, I must confess that I was not sorry to close the cover and shelve this book. Maybe I'll revisit it in 20 years; regardless, these characters are forever seared in my consciousness.
on May 28, 2001
The books of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy have been well received individually, and yet none of them has been received well-enough... What we have in these three books are three works of genius, vivid, thrilling, heartbreaking, individual stories of astounding specificity and realism which nevertheless pull larger stories, the story of the American West, the story of unspoiled wilderness, the story of our own national romanticism, along with them.
The protagonists are boys in love with the land, in love with an ascetic live on it, who are forced, through the series of stories, to watch that land change and whither and grow tame and bland. The boys quarrel, fall in love. They are prey to violence, to loss. They are, for the most part, taciturn, and yet McCarthy's extraordinary skill puts meaning into what they do not say, their silences, their gestures.
I have read the first two books twice. I have not re-read the third yet because I have not recovered emotionally. But the reading of that third started a chemical reaction that made it seem as though I had read the first two a third time, and brought a new, fuller meaning to all my literary experiences with the trilogy.
A great stylist, a superb story-teller, a poet, and a profound psychologist, McCarthy is, in my opinion, the best writer in America. I see him viewed and admired, in fifty years, as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald are now. I would like to be one person who gets a jump on this eventuality.
I didn't realize until I looked at the Amazon site that Frank Muller has narrated so many books. They have 84 Muller listings here, primarily for Stephen King, John Grisham and other best-selling authors. The only other Muller audio-book I was familiar with was his rendition of King's <The Green Mile>, which was excellent. Muller surpasses that here, however, as he renders McCarthy's prose faultlessly. He captures the accents, whether they be Texan or Mexican, faithfully and unaffectadly. This is a great acting-job, natural, unassuming, perfectly in-flow with the narrative. His shift from character to character is seemless. Muller is the latter-day role model for anyone wishing to narrate books. There is ample reason why he is so prolific.
The story itself lends itself to being told orally. It is a myth of the west, but I mean that in the greatest sense of the word. Mythic here does not mean unrealistic. Far from it. It is mythic because it represents higher truths, but tells a human story in as truthful a manner as possible. I hate to use a hackneyed term like "describing the human condition," but it does. There are other high-school terms I could use, such as "coming-of-age story," "piquaresque novel," "story of initiation," etc. , but they would all short-change McCarthy's accomplishment here. McCarthy represents what is increasiningly scarce in modern American letters. He is a truly original novelist. Yes, we can trace his roots, but he has acquired his unique voice by dint of much effort, trial, delving, maybe even bloodshed. He is one of those authors that after reading one of his works, we are left to ask "How did he come by that knowledge?" He doesn't just research a work. He must have, at least in part, lived it. For instance, in this work, I was left wondering how he could have aquired such an encyclopedic knowledge of all things having to do with horses. I worked on the backstretch of racetracks for five years and didn't know my nomenclature with anything like the authority he does.
It would appear that Muller, like McCarthy has thoroughly done his homework. Never once in the course of this unabridged audio does he stumble over a word, much less a passage. He speaks Spanish almost as fluently as English, which is important for this work. In fact I would suggest that if you do not comprehend Spanish readily, you refer to the text-form of the book and maybe a Spanish dictionary before listening to this tape, though you can still appreciate most of it.
My estimation of McCarthy, which was already high, as well as my opinion of Muller, were greatly enhanced by the experience of listening to these tapes.
(This review refers to the unabridged audio-tape version of <All the Pretty Horses>. I prefer printed versions of good books, but see nothing wrong with listening to books when we dont have our hands free. Cars, obviously. I know what you were thinking!)
on January 10, 2000
I found this book on an empty, dusty bookself at the back of my high school library, it's cover and first few pages torn away and the corners burned round. I thought that either someone was very bored and destructive or frustrated by the difficulty of the first few chapters (this only after flipping it open to find out it's title, the side being illedgable). After reading it I realize it could even more easily have come from the frustration of wanting more! This book kept me reading from cover to cover and still awake enough to wish it were double it's size. While reading it I had no clue as to it's popularity or award, but I knew it deserved one. John Grady Cole is an amazingly believable hero. I found myself trusting him and not the author to carry the book, knowing that he would come through no matter what. Even as the dialogue turned increasingly to spanish I felt that there wasn't a need to understand every word, I knew Grady enough to know what he would say. After getting a friend to translate a bit I found that this was true. I can only hope the movie is even half as good! I'm going to buy my school a copy to replace the destroyed version that I found.
on May 15, 2000
Since the early 1900's, America has greatly progressed industrially and technologically, thus causing the early 1990's publication of the western novel, All the Pretty Horses, to seem out of place. This untimliness, however, is no indication to the quality of the book. Cormac McCarthy demonstrates all the characteristics of a traditional Western: adventure, love, damsels, murder, horses, and a hero, while still maintaining the elegant language and style of writing he has created. Set along the Texas-Mexican border in the late 1940's, All the Pretty Horses relates young John Grady Cole's discoveries about religion, love, and life as he runs away from home and becomes a man. The idealistic Cole embodies the desires of all young adults, freedom and understanding, and sets out to satisfy them. Through several experiences that an average teenager would not have encountered, he realizes that reality can be cruel but maintains his amazing determination to live his life without the burdens of society.
McCarthy's magnificent wording and motifs demonstrate the many themes of hospitality, religion, freedom, and the quest for knowledge. The language appears to be deterring because of the author's choice to delete the majority of punctuation marks, however, if he had left the words in proper English format, the novel would have lost its realism and power. Unlike Charles Dickens, who is infamous for his lengthy, soporific descriptions, McCarthy utilizes his language to depict the Mexican landscape in a way that appeals to the reader. Not everything in the novel is pretty; as an adventure story, the book still enbodies the basic blood, guts, and gore; it simply describes them more completely than an average fiction novel. This quest for realism can become overused at times (i.e. entire dialogues written Spanish where occasionally a character may offer some form of explanation but usually leave the reader wondering). McCarthy's realism also extends to his multiple color motifs. Almost every pigment in the color wheel represents a quality in the novel, and because the author describes everything accurately, at least one of these recurring motifs appears on every other page. This does make analysis of the the novel fairly simple, but the overwhelming amount of color can become repetitive. McCarthy has mastered a wonderful command of language and exemplifies creativity well, but by stating the themes outright, he removes the opportunity for the reader to demonstrate his own ability to understand.
All the Pretty Horses embodies all the requirements of an interesting, adventurous novel that anyone could appreciate for its exciting plot and insightful discoveries of human nature. Whether searching for a wonderful book to read purely for entertainment or attempting to discover a piece of literature that is relatively simple to analyze, one should seriously consider All the Pretty Horses as an appropriate choice.
on October 30, 2006
A lot has already been said about this novel, so I'll address my review to those unfamiliar with Mccarthy's work. If you've never read Mccarthy before, this is a great place to start. The plot is tight, engaging, and easy to follow, and the language is gorgeous. If you enjoy this book and want to move on to others, read the others in the border trilogy before tackling "Blood Meridian."
Some people will take issue with Mccarthy's grammar, sentence structure, use of Spanish, and punctuation (or lack thereof). Mccarthy takes a lot of poetic license with his writing, and chooses words as much for their sound as for their meaning. The sentences are written with attention paid to rhythm and "breath," meaning that they don't always look or sound like conventional prose. This will be displeasing to some. As an example, the first line of the book reads: "The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door." Now, Mccarthy could have just as easily said "the candle flickered when he entered the room," or something like that, but the effect, aurally, is just not the same.
Read the first page of the book. If you don't catch fire at the beauty of it, then maybe this book, and Mccarthy's work in general, is not for you.