It doesn’t matter how much I read, I never seem to make any headway on the literary canon: novels by the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellows, Toni Morrison, and Virginia Woolf — not to mention the sagas of Homer and Virgil, or any Shakespeare besides Hamlet and the plays that have been made into movies.
I’d be happy muddling along reading whatever great contemporary fiction falls into my lap (A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; Touch by Courtney Maum) but often when you tell someone you’re a writer, they assume you’re incredibly well read. ‘Have you read XYZ?’ they ask, and too often I sheepishly say, ‘Nope.’ Or maybe I read the novel for school or university and have since forgotten everything but the basic plot.
More pressingly, I hope to teach English Lit one day and I suspect you need to have read the material before you can inspire others to engage with it. So I Googled a university’s literature classes and started with a book I’m sure I’ve picked up and put down in the past: McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses.
Since doing a master’s in creative writing last year, I’ve been approaching books in a certain critical light. What point of view did the author choose, and why? Can you chart the plot in terms of a three-act classical structure? How is dialogue attributed? How much literary philosophy is there among the action? Besides the protagonist, are there any stand-out characters?
Point of View
The third-person narrative follows 16-year-old John Grady Cole and at first I thought it was a subjective narrative, where you get inside the person’s head, but then some phrases indicated it was more objective, with McCarthy laying down the facts in a separate voice of his own devising.
Specifically, we were taught last year that in a third-person subjective narrative — and certainly in the first person — you shouldn’t use descriptive vocabulary that the character themselves would not use. But McCarthy writes lovely, specific passages like these:
They sat at a long table of english walnut. The walls of the room were covered with blue damask and hung with portraits of men and horses. At the end of the room was a walnut sideboard with some chafingdishes and decanters set out upon it and along the windowsill outside taking the sun were four cats.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong and these are exactly the words of a young Texan horse breaker. But I think this and other features show the story is told by a more omniscient being, which suits the stoic, mid-twentieth century, rural male characters, who were not exactly metrosexuals known for unburdening their hearts and minds to all and sundry.
All The Pretty Horses has no chapters but is divided into four parts. Despite the four parts, I endeavored to pick the typical features of the first act in a screenplay: the inciting incident or disturbance, and a turning point that should leave the protagonist at a metaphorical or literal fork in the road, amounting to a personal dilemma.
The facts of the first part of the story (in which an author may establish the normality) were sometimes hinted at, rather than explained in great detail, but the disturbance still emerged clearly. His maternal grandfather had died. His parents had divorced and his mother, an itinerant actress who would inherit their ranch, wished to sell it, while his father could do nothing to persuade her in their boy’s favor.
John Grady (always referred to by his two names) tried to plead his own case but his mother considered him too young to take the ranch on. In much of the rest of the novel I had to keep reminding myself he was meant to only be 16, and wondering if his actions were really possible for a boy so young — but I guess that’s Texas cowboys for you.
So we know John Grady can no longer live or work on his own family’s ranch but it’s never really explained why he then chooses to run off to Mexico, much less why his friend Rawlins chooses to go with him. The turning point comes when they meet a third, younger boy, and his presence or absence colors the rest of the story. Plus they meet a beautiful girl!
I didn’t track the rest of the major plot points but an author has to get act one right or they’re screwed! Something I’m about to tackle in my own work.
In keeping with the straightforward prose and what you see is what you get cowboy vibes, dialogue has no speech marks around it, and follows a simple he said/she said pattern, though sometimes McCarthy would go a number of lines with no attribution and I would read back to figure out who said what. Also note, there are some really long sentences, with minimal commas throughout. And if there’s a letter missing, McCarthy doesn’t bother to note it with an apostrophe (eg: runnin V runnin’).
They ate. His father didn’t eat much. After a while he pushed the plate back with his thumb and reached and got another cigarette and tapped it against the lighter and put it in his mouth and lit it.
You can say whatever’s on your mind. Hell. You can bitch at me about smokin if you want.
The boy didn’t answer.
You know it aint what I wanted dont you?
Yeah. I know that.
You lookin after Roscoe good?
He aint been rode.
Why dont we go Saturday.
You dont have to if you got somethin else to do.
I aint got nothin else to do.
His father smoked, he watched him.
I already knew McCarthy was famous for a sparse — dare I say manly — style, epitomized in his dystopian classic The Road. As a huge fan of Hemingway, this registered as a plus for me but, like Hemingway, I was pleasantly surprised to find a sense of romance and tenderness for his subject too.
I’m already partial to horses and McCarthy’s astute, sympathetic writing cast them and the hard world of cowboys, ranch hands, and humble Mexican villagers in a soft and gentle light. (That said, on the back of his description, I would avoid ending up in a Mexican jail at all costs!)
Here are a few fav passages:
The Good Book says that the meek shall inherit the earth and I expect that’s probably the truth. I aint no freethinker, but I’ll tell you what. I’m a long way from bein convinced that it’s all that good a thing.
The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he’d been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway. Would have known that there was something missing for the world to be right in it and would have set forth to wander wherever it was needed for as long as it took until he came upon one and he would have known that was what he sought and it would have been.
They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.
Apart from the omniscient narrator, a good portion of the philosophy in the novel comes from one character: the beautiful girl’s great-aunt, Senorita Alfonsa. She’s one of several fully realized minor characters in the novel, and is even more rounded than Grady’s young partner Rawlins, who seems to serve as the conscience Grady ignores.
While we mainly get to know Rawlins and other characters through their actions and dialogue, McCarthy describes Alfonsa’s appearance and mannerisms in detail and she also explains herself in a series of lengthy passages (which at one point dragged on a little for me):
She was dressed in a dark gray skirt and a white pleated blouse and her gray hair was gathered up behind and she looked like the schoolteacher she in fact had been. She spoke with an English accent. She held out one hand and he almost stepped forward to take it before he realized that she was gesturing toward the chair at her right.
“I grew up in a world of men. I thought this would have prepared me to live in a world of men but it did not. I was also rebellious and so I recognize it in others. Yet I think that I had no wish to break things. Or perhaps only those things that wished to break me. The names of the entities that have power to constrain us change with time. Convention and authority are replaced by infirmity. But my attitude to ward them has not changed. Has not changed.”