Set in west Texas and northern central Mexico in l949, All the Pretty Horses is subtitled "Volume One, The Border Trilogy," indicating that it is the first of three books in a series. The tale is about two young men, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, who run away from their hometown on their horses and ride across Texas and northeastern Mexico. They start near San Angelo, Texas, and travel approximately 130 miles to near Langtry, Texas, where they cross the Rio Grande River into Mexico. From there, they ride approximately 180 miles farther, to a well-situated hacienda, where they land jobs as cowboys. John Grady is identified by his mother as "only sixteen," and we can assume that his good friend, Rawlins, is a similar age. Both boys are mature for their age and successfully negotiate their adventure south.
Structurally, All the Pretty Horses is quite simple. The story begins with the wake of John Grady Cole's grandfather and takes us through the two friends' adventures, from beginning to end, when they return to the San Angelo area from Mexico. In addition to telling the story of the boys' adventure, McCarthy introduces a love story between John Grady and Alejandra, reminiscent of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
All the Pretty Horses is perhaps the most readable of McCarthy's work. But the book's accessibility should not lull the reader into thinking that this is a simple novel. To the contrary, the first 30 pages may require two readings in order for the reader to get into the story. McCarthy's technique of introducing characters only as "he" or "she" and not naming them for several pages, if ever, can make the story difficult to follow and warns us not to assume that the characters are easy to understand. In the first mention of a character, we see the surface skin and perhaps a description or action; later, we learn the character's name; and finally, the story unfolds. For example, we don't learn John Grady's name until the fifth page of the book. But it is the events of the entire book that fill in his character, and, even then, we must wait for the third book of the trilogy to get the complete picture of who John Grady is.
In the rich story of All the Pretty Horses, the variety of themes adds complexity and allows room for multiple interpretations. Loss of innocence and loss of the past are two parallel themes in the novel. The journey, or quest, theme is very important to the book (Cervantes' Don Quixote, another story about a horseback journey of two men, is the only work of literature mentioned in the novel). After embarking on this journey, John Grady and Rawlins are no longer children. Similarly, with the passing of John Grady's grandfather, the old West is also now lost.
Family relationships are another important motif in the novel. We learn of John Grady's family and how they affect him and his future. John Grady's mother left him in the care of the Mexican women when he was a baby and remained away from the ranch for a long period of time in his childhood. His father was away because of World War II, and, except for teaching him about horses, his relationship with his grandfather did not give him the nurturing he needed. Rawlins comes from a poorer family that he wants to escape, while Blevins, who is only about 13 years old, seems to have been on his own for a long time and has no family at all. All three of these boys (or young men, as they mature in the story) have suffered abandonment, psychologically and emotionally, if not actually. So they run away, to find fulfillment in the big world they imagine is waiting for them. Differing from these American families is the family history of the Rochas at La Purisima. The Rochas have lived with privilege. All have received excellent educational experiences and only suffer, if at all, from too much family interference, yet, the Rocha family has been molded by Spanish and European traditions as well as the Mexican Revolution. The aunt was educated in Europe, and Senor Rocha is well-read and knowledgeable about Spanish and European history. However, the Mexican Revolution, of 40 years earlier, has altered the hopes and dreams of family members. It has made the aunt cynical and controlling, Senor Rocha passive and withdrawn into his hobbies. This atmosphere makes Alejandra alienated from her family and adds to her attraction to John Grady, who is full of dreams and is a man of action and idealism. He seems like a hero, something the Rocha family has not known since the Mexican Revolution.
The jail scenes bring up the terrors of cruelty and the dark side of humans and can be compared to similar incarcerations in other great works of literature. Dostoevsky wrote about his own imprisonment in a classic memoir. Camus writes tellingly of jail in The Stranger, as does Sartre in "The Wall." James Jones' From Here to Eternity has a famous "in the brig" section, which details how to survive extreme incarceration. Native Son by Richard Wright is the famous novel of a young African American man caught and imprisoned.
Last, and most important, is the nature theme and the relationship between human beings and the earth. The horses play a central role in defining what McCarthy is saying about human existence. The horses may be eternal, just as Yeats' swans in "The Wild Swans at Coole," which return every year. Human life, especially human achievement, is transitory, ever changing. Nature survives and continues. Striving human beings, in contrast to Native Americans, for example, who accept the natural pattern of existence, are left to struggle, always hoping, but often left with only a sense of loss. Thus, the struggle, the adventure, the process is the only meaning for humans, because the successes, the material acquisitions are not permanent. John Grady's attempts to get a life on a ranch or hacienda are doomed. But his relationship to horses, representing the earth and nature, is fulfilled. We last see him riding his horse, part of the landscape.
Influences on McCarthy's work. The boys' journey is filled with camping scenes reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway's early Nick Adams tales, in which the joy of sleeping under the stars and drinking coffee around the campfire brings peace of mind and renewal. Other authors also influence McCarthy's work. In particular, scholars have noted the great influence of William Faulkner in McCarthy's work. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, won the Faulkner prize for best first novel, and for his fourth novel, Suttree, McCarthy was critically acclaimed as the first novelist since World War II who could merit comparison to Faulkner.
In McCarthy's writing, we hear the echoes of Faulkner's unique language. It is the language of the South, of poetry, of the Bible, filled with images of legends and myths. McCarthy also shares much with Faulkner's philosophy: the earth and simple people endure, and, after disaster, we will still hear the human voice, talking. In style, McCarthy is forming his own special voice. We hear the language of Faulkner, eloquent, but McCarthy's is a new version, bilingual and western, without stream of consciousness.
In theme, the adventure to a foreign country where war has altered the culture is similar to Hemingway's World War I and Spanish Civil War works Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Although John Grady and Rawlins do not fight in a war themselves, their lives are forever altered, not only by World War II, but by the Mexican Revolution, which took place 40 years before their adventure. Other echoes of Hemingway appear in the masculine skill with the wilderness and horses that both John Grady and Rawlins possess (John Grady is called one of the best riders alive by his friends, and his process is well confirmed by McCarthy's descriptions).
In addition, from Hemingway, McCarthy gets inspiration for his characters. Men of few words who camp, hunt, and fish, men who have their own codes and try to do right, be brave, and perform with grace — these are the characters who influence McCarthy's cowboys in the Border Trilogy books. In John Grady and Rawlins' sidekick, Blevins, who joins the two boys near the border, we find a quite Faulknerian character, one who brings to the novel humor as well as danger, with his tenacious single-mindedness.
Finally, when noting the influences of other writers on McCarthy's work, we cannot overlook Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The similarities are striking: A young boy runs away from home to seek adventure and fortune, and, in the process, he must mature, grow, and learn to survive in a world different from the one he imagined.
A brief comment on language and culture in All the Pretty Horses. Cormac McCarthy, in this first novel of the Border Trilogy, uses numerous Spanish words and phrases. Most often, these words are clear to the careful reader, because he either repeats the word in English or explains the meaning before or after he uses it in Spanish. However, many other instances of Spanish phrases are not explained by surrounding English text. In those instances, readers may succeed at trying to decipher the text by looking for clues in English. For example, at the beginning of Chapter I, John Grady, at this point still only identified as "he," says to the cook, "I appreciate you lightin the candle," and when she replies "Como?" (meaning "why?") he says, "La candela. La vela." Readers can infer from her use of "no" in one phrase and "antes" in a following one that someone else lit the candle, a "senora" who was up before her. ("Ante" is used to mean "before" in many English words. For example, an "antecedent" is a preceding event or condition.) Here is another example that is somewhat easier to decipher. In the beginning of Chapter II, when John Grady is negotiating with the manager of the hacienda to try to break the sixteen wild horses they have found in a pen, the reader understands that the Spanish words refer to the horses. The conversations before and after this brief meeting make it clear that the two young American cowboys are planning to break the horses in four days. Although readers may not know the direct translation of the Spanish, much of it is clear from the context of the surrounding English text. Keep in mind that All the Pretty Horses is set in west Texas and Mexico, so many of the characters, including John Grady, are bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish. All the Pretty Horses is written from a dual-cultural, if not multicultural, context; the language directs us to this point of view.
In addition to the Spanish terminology that may be unfamiliar to many readers, McCarthy uses cowboy terminology, especially references to specific kinds of tack (horse equipment). Names of plants and grasses of the southwest desert region are also found throughout the text. (In order to explain these phrases in more detail, a glossary is provided at the end of every Analysis section, for your reference.)
A comment on the Border Trilogy. The books of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, in order of publication, are All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. But the books are not a story in sequence and are not sequential even in theme. Rather, they are three pieces of a large puzzle, a picture of the American Southwest, specifically an area of the border with Mexico that runs from Laredo, Texas, to Tucson, Arizona. McCarthy is presenting a picture of that vast desert, grassland, and mountain region where the last of the pioneers settled.
The three books can be read in any order because each enhances the story and expands upon the themes of the others. The Crossing is in many ways parallel to All the Pretty Horses. The main character in The Crossing, Billy Parham, goes to Mexico the first time alone, to take a pregnant, injured wolf back to its home in the mountains after its mate has been killed. Parham begins this difficult task at the end of the 1930s and is away for some time. When he returns, his parents have been murdered and six horses stolen. So he leaves with his younger brother, Boyd, to return to Mexico and retrieve the horses. Billy (about 17 years old) and Boyd (almost 15 years old) travel several weeks and find the horses, but they lose most of the horses again, and Boyd is wounded on their return trip. Billy finds a kind old doctor who saves Boyd's life, but Boyd insists on Billy going to find the young girl who had accompanied them on part of their journey in Mexico. After he is well, Boyd and the girl run away together, and Billy travels around for several months and can't find them. So finally, he returns to the United States alone. World War II has begun, and he tries to enlist but is rejected several times for a minor heart defect. He decides to return to Mexico after finding one of their horses at a ranch; instead of finding Boyd, he finds Boyd's grave. Billy digs up his brother's body and brings his remains home.
In Cities of the Plain, Billy Parham and John Grady Cole (the main character in All the Pretty Horses) meet up on a New Mexican ranch not far from El Paso. The first scene of the novel shows the two men, with a third cowboy, drinking at a bar in Juarez across the border from El Paso. Billy calls John Grady the all-American cowboy. We never see the character Rawlins from All the Pretty Horses again, and at the end of Cities of the Plain, we find out that John Grady has not contacted his family around San Angelo for three years, since the end of the Pretty Horses saga.
In Cities of the Plain, McCarthy provides more stories of ranching life. John Grady rides the range checking cattle and notices a small calf that runs with a strange gait. He ropes and throws the calf, ties it up, and discovers a broken-off small piece of wood pushed into the calf's inner leg. By pushing and finally using his teeth, he extracts the piece of wood. Meanwhile, the wound is infected, so he swabs it with antiseptic, which he carries in his saddlebag. In this scene, we learn why roping was such an important skill in the raising of cattle on the range. If John Grady hadn't roped and treated the calf, it would have died from the infection. In this final novel in the trilogy, John Grady is still admired and known for his expertise with horses. When a wealthy man is looking for someone to train his filly so that he can give the horse to his wife for a present, the ranch owner recommends John Grady for the job. John Grady rejects the horse because it has an invisible crack in one hoof that someone has tried to cover up. He knows the horse is lame because it twitches one ear when it steps on that hoof. The men try to bribe John Grady to keep the horse but he makes them put it back in the truck and leave.
Even as an older young adult, John Grady still has an idealistic streak. He falls in love with a young girl who is different from the rest and starts to fix up a remote cabin on the ranch so that they can marry. He also has a very wild, half-ruined horse that he is determined to turn around. None of the other cowboys believes he can tame the horse, but John Grady proves them wrong.
At the end of Cities of the Plain, we find Billy Parham in his late seventies, wandering in Arizona at the end of the 1900s. The cities of this final novel in the trilogy are the border towns, El Paso and Juarez. Many scholars note the similarities to the biblical "cities of the plain" where Abraham and Lot settled, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. To be sure, in the last novel of the trilogy, more corruption is present than in the first two books.
The end is near and the image of John Grady on his horse, horse and rider appearing as one, is soon to be extinct. Man's connection with nature, his oneness with it, is at an end.