Where a man can be a man

Margaret Anne Doody

  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
    Picador, 302 pp, £5.99, November 1993, ISBN 0 330 33169 8

In Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, the young hero, imprisoned in a jail in Mexico and suffering harsh conditions, has a brilliant dream – a dream calling for some very earnest writing on the part of the author:

That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain ... 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 colours 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.

I was quite delighted to come upon this passage: not because I am as impressed as the author would wish with what once was called ‘fine writing’ but because I am always on the lookout for parallels between ancient novels and modern ones. In one of the earliest surviving novels of the Roman Imperial period, the Ephesiaka by Xenophon of Ephesus, the hero has a similar dream, in similar circumstances. The hero, Habrokomes, is imprisoned largely because of love-complications (the same applies to McCarthy’s young John Grady Cole). Tortured, immured, separated from his beloved, Habrokomes is given the relief of a dream:

he thought he saw his own father Lykomedes in black clothing travelling across all the lands and seas and arriving finally at his prison where he delivered him from his chains and took him from his prison-cell. Habrokomes himself became a horse and rushed along through many lands pursuing a mare, and in the end finding the female he became a man.

In turning into a horse, Habrokomes in his dream undergoes a metamorphosis akin to that of Apuleius’ hero who becomes an ass. The word used to indicate that Habrokomes pursues a female horse (theleian) emphasises the female animal’s teat, so that an infantile content (colt seeks mother) is introduced into the sexual pursuit. In McCarthy’s novel, too, the dreaming hero is partly identified with the ‘young colts’ running ‘with their dams’, as well as with the general ‘horses’; in both novels the hero’s need as well as his desire for freedom is a leading idea. Both Habrokomes and John have been separated from their parents, both have had love affairs resulting at least temporarily in disaster. Both lose their fathers to death during their adventures. But McCarthy wants to identify his hero with independence and freedom, so the father does not intrude into this dream, and the taking-off with the horses has a mystic glow not present in the old Greek novel. Xenophon’s hero becomes a horse – undergoes metamorphosis; in McCarthy’s story, the hero is not precisely metamorphosed into a horse, for the superiority of man as horse-controller is a theme of the novel, which is less willing to embarrass its hero than the older work to which All the Pretty Horses bears a resemblance.

The resemblance is not very surprising after all, for McCarthy’s novel strives for a certain archaism of effect. It is not, of course, the antique Greek novel that McCarthy is trying to imitate, but an older style of American novel, the kind that dealt with the grand simplicities. Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) was brought up in East Tennessee, arriving in Knoxville at the age of four, and the mountains of East Tennessee, the wilds of Tennessee’s Appalachia, provided the setting for his early works, in which the independence of the mountain men, their individuality and their often blind grappling with God or the divine are in contrast to and in conflict with public legality and modes of order. McCarthy has been considered one of the Southern Gothic writers, along with Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor; he shared O’Connor’s religion, having been bred a Roman Catholic.

His latest novel marks a departure; the wild country is now the Texas-Mexico border; Eastern Tennessee, with its new ski resorts and neon-lit tourist sites edging into the Smokies, is obviously no longer suitable for McCarthy’s work, and he himself has moved to Texas. This novel, we are promised, is the first of a trilogy to be called ‘The Border Trilogy’. All the Pretty Horses is a bildungsroman, a tale of developing manhood. John Grady Cole in his teens leaves an unsatisfactory home situation in Texas and runs away to Mexico with a young friend, Rawlins, a more cowardly and normal if aimless youth. On the way, they encounter and are then accompanied by a third youth, 13-year-old Blevins, whose mixture of fear and courageous obstinacy plunges them into disaster. John finds work on a Mexican ranch, but his love-affair with the rancher’s daughter, Alejandra, is ill-starred, and the offended family seeks to punish him. John Grady Cole is seen to develop strength, courage, independence, as well as an intuition, through his work with the horses, of the unity of man and nature. He treats the horses he breaks with gentle power rather than brute strength:

He’d ride sometimes clear to the upper end of the laguna before the horse would even stop trembling and he spoke constantly to it in Spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law. Soy comandante de las yeguas, he would say, yo y yo sólo ... While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations and of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.

In his close work with the horses he tames, John comes into contact with a kind of world soul of horseness, which is this novel’s intimation of the divine – that, and a certain acceptance of the immutable harshness of life. As Alejandra’s aunt, a woman of character who is also John’s enemy, tells him, ‘in the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.’ This at least is well said, but the novel itself seems to bely this insight in the number of gratifications it is willing to heap on the reader, not least in its mystique of manliness, its promise of enlightenment for the strong.

McCarthy’s novel is set about forty-five years ago, and his Mexico is satisfactorily primitive, impoverished, beautiful, at best ruggedly barbaric – not a vision of Mexico that will please contemporary Mexicans or will help implement Nafta. This ‘Mexico’ must exist as a place where a man can be a man: an American man, that is – the Mexican men are mostly depicted as cowardly or cruel. One may suspect that McCarthy’s Mexico is the imagined space for juvenile manliness – as the advertisement for Taco Bell advises, he has made ‘a run for the Border’ – but it is also the setting for an idyll. For that is what All the Pretty Horses is, despite – or in – its grunge.

The guards had long since scabbarded their rifles and they rode easily, half-slouched in the saddle. About ten oclock they halted and made camp and built a fire. The prisoners sat in the sand among old rusted tins and bits of charcoal with their hands still manacled before them and the guards set out an old blue granite-ware coffeepot and a stewpot of the same material and they drank coffee and ate a dish containing some kind of pale and fibrous tuber, some kind of meat, some kind of fowl. All of it stringy, all of it sour.

I don’t hear Southern Gothic in this sort of thing; the influence of Faulkner, it is true, is to be felt in the shape of some sentences, but that influence is muted. The writer McCarthy’s present style reminds me of is Hemingway. Throughout the novel, the sentences seem to strive for a manly truthfulness in the Hemingway manner. As with Hemingway, there is an emphasis on the lone individual and his sensations. (Faulkner is much more inclined than McCarthy to deal with a number of people and their relationships with each other.) There are also touches of Steinbeck; the older boys’ relations with Blevins has some resemblance to relationships in Of Mice and Men, and the descriptions of commonplace dirt and decayed places also owe something to Steinbeck. At a few blessed moments, however, there are some lighter reminiscences of Mark Twain:

  My daddy run off from home when he was 15. Otherwise I’d of been born in Alabama.

  You wouldnt of been born at all ...

  I dont see why you say that. I’d of been born somewheres.

  How?

  Well why not?

  If your mama had a baby with her other husband and your daddy had one with his other wife which one would you be?

  I wouldnt be neither of em.

  That’s right.

  Rawlins lay watching the stars. After a while he said: I could still be born. I might look different or somethin. If God wanted me to be born I’d be born.

  And if He didnt you wouldnt.

It’s hazardous to bet on the outcome of a trilogy, but I would wager that the theme of identity and God’s will is to be worked out in future volumes as John achieves maturity.

Should a novel be quite so reminiscent of other novels as this one is? It would be unfair to mutter ‘a common Zane Greyness silvers everything.’ Yet the old story of a horse-taming Western experience bringing on male maturation is too closely copied for one to sense a striking new vision. Is the novelist trying to make the period in which the novel is set show in the writing? This style, with its lack of clutter – including omission of many common units of punctuation such as quotation marks, and apostrophes in words like ‘wouldn’t’ – echoes earlier 20th-century preoccupations with simplification and solidity. What price sentences by Hemingway punctuated by Bernard Shaw with adjectives out of Faulkner? Post-Modernism seeks all sorts of quotations, as we know, but it does not seem likely that McCarthy wishes, consciously at any rate, to invest in Post-Modernism with its tricky and unmanly games of representation. Rather, here there is a longing for a reality beyond representation itself. Yet by including a dream (in one of the most luxuriant descriptions of the novel, and one of the few sites of happiness), the author has created an ekphrasis – a vivid emblematic visual impression – that is purely representational (like the movies briefly referred to at the outset). Dreams compromise manly dignity of style. They function like music video shorts, to usher in elements of the chaotic beyond the order that the novel officially sanctions. This novel sanctions an order of manly independence and resolution, but the bright dream hazards a glimpse of a herd or crowd life that the rest of the novel condemns. The writing of the dream itself is rather too careful to be altogether good (I prefer Xenophon’s horse-dream) but even more problematic is the lack of true connection between dream-desire and the novel’s official desires and pursuits.