All the Pretty Horses

In the first volume of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, 16-year-old John Grady Cole set off for Mexico with his friend Rawlins. At a riverside, a younger boy, Blevins, riding a beautiful, presumably stolen horse, joined them. When Rawlins asked, “What the hell would we want you with us for?” Blevins answered, “Cause I’m an American,” and the three boys crossed the river—crossing the border—into Mexico:

They crossed the river under a white quartermoon naked and pale and thin atop their horses. They’d stuffed their boots upside down into their jeans and stuffed their shirts and jackets after along with their warbags of shaving gear and ammunition and they belted the jeans shut at the waist and tied the legs loosely about their necks and dressed only in their hats they led the horses out onto the gravel spit and loosed the girthstraps and mounted and put the horses into the water with their naked heels.

Midriver the horses were swimming, snorting and stretching their necks out of the water, their tails afloat behind. They quartered downstream with the current, the naked riders leaning forward and talking to the horses, Rawlins holding the rifle aloft in one hand, lined out behind one another and making for the alien shore like a party of marauders.

They rode up out of the river among the willows and rode singlefile upstream through the shallows onto a long gravel beach where they took off their hats and turned and looked back at the country they’d left. No one spoke. Then suddenly they put their horses to a gallop up the beach and turned and came back, fanning with their hats and laughing and pulling up and patting the horses on the shoulder.

Goddamn, said Rawlins. You know where we’re at?

They sat the smoking horses in the moonlight and looked at one another. Then quietly they dismounted and unslung their clothes from about their necks and dressed and led the horses up out of the willow breaks and gravel benches and out upon the plain where they mounted and rode south onto the dry scrublands of Coahuila. (All the Pretty Horses 45-6)

I was first drawn to the absurd image of thin pale naked boys atop their horses crossing a river under a thin pale naked quarter moon. I was drawn into its atmosphere of exuberance of three idyllic innocents who take on life. This passage contains several of McCarthy’s stylistic trademarks—selective use of punctuation, the use of “and,” very long and short sentences, repetitions of words, and imagistic, expansive prose—elements that contribute to achieving T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative.

The use of punctuation produces varied aesthetic effects. The lack of a comma after “quartermoon” in the first line creates structural ambiguity: Is the phrase “naked and pale and thin atop their horses” describing the boys or the moon?  The ambiguous structure suggests both the boys and moon were “naked and pale and thin,” evoking a surreal yet profound connectedness between the humans and their surroundings. In the very long second sentence, the omission of conventional periods and commas produces quick-moving cinematic action, typically of a Western genre. In contrast, the shorter first sentence of the second paragraph has two commas, slowing down the pace and allowing the reader to linger on the idyllic image of horses, accentuating one of the novel’s motifs—a child’s impossible dreams, as alluded to in the title, All the Pretty Horses.

Where periods and commas are conventional, McCarthy uses “and” to link independent clauses, verbs, adjectives, and nouns. His paratactic style has a conversational, oral storytelling quality. The sentences have loose logical relation to one another; the “and” that joins them does not suggest any causal or temporal relation. McCarthy’s paratactic style situates the narrator as a camera lens that presents an equal rather than hierarchical organization of images, actions, and objects. The use of “and” in creating parallelism among objects—“warbags of shaving gear and ammunition”—or ongoing action—“fanning with their hats and laughing and pulling up and patting the horses on the shoulder”—again imparts a cinematic quality that seems unfiltered and objective, allowing more room for readers’ interpretation and multiplicity in meaning.

Another of McCarthy’s stylistic device is word repetition in creating an incantatory and lyrical rhythm, a sense of connectedness, and a surreal picture of idyllic youth. Though approximately 20% of the words in the quoted passage are repetitive, their reiteration oftentimes varies syntactically. The same words are used to describe different objects: “naked” describes the quarter moon, riders, and their heels; “necks” is repeated in reference to the boys’ necks as well as the horses’ necks; “loosely” and “loosed”—different parts of speech—are used to refer to different action and objects. By using the same words to describe the boys, moon, and horses, McCarthy creates a sense of connectedness among the living and their natural surrounding, as well as evoking a sense of expansiveness in the physical milieu—from the naked quarter moon to the naked heels of the riders.

Besides evoking the expansiveness of the environment, McCarthy’s imagistic language is expansive in its doubled meanings and foreshadowed events. Crossing a river is more than just crossing a river . . . While the voice is third-person central for the most part, there are places where it is limited omniscient, for example, the use of the simile—“like a party of marauders”—and the boys “rode onto the dry scrublands of Coahuila,” not knowing it was Coahuila. Rhetorically, the limited omniscient voice heightens the naiveté of the boys’ quest for adventure and manhood, and at the same time, foreshadows the impossibility of obtaining all the pretty horses.