All the Pretty Horses
(the title comes from a popular lullaby) is a rousing adventure story. Set in southern Texas and northern Mexico in 1949, the book has all the features of the standard apprenticeship novel: A young man leaves home with a companion, is introduced to evil in the world, loses his virginity to a beautiful young woman, and finally comes home a much wiser man.
McCarthy divides All the Pretty Horses
into four sections of roughly equal length and tells the story from the third-person omniscient point of view. The colloquial speech of the three young men casts a spell. It is charming, vivid, and pungent without being obscene, and it provides one of the many great pleasures of the novel. The narrator’s commentary sometimes strains after poetic moods in the spirit of William Faulkner, but these rare embarrassments fade in comparison with the real beauty of McCarthy’s best descriptions.
For example, the three young men, riding tired in their saddles one night, are confronted with an ominous storm front: "Shrouded in the black thunderheads the distant lightning glowed mutely like welding seen through foundry smoke. As if repairs were under way at some flawed place in the iron dark of the world." Such a passage is hardly mere ornament; the menace of the image foreshadows the nightmare events that await the travelers.
Part 1 opens with the death of John Grady’s grandfather and depicts John Grady at loose ends, with his parents separated as his mother pursues a career on the stage. Too young to take over the family spread, John Grady one night saddles up Redbo, the first of the pretty horses featured so lovingly in the novel, and rouses his friend Rawlins; the two ride off to seek their fortunes. Their beginning is a boys’ idyll of zestfully eating bad food, lying around rolling cigarettes, and reveling in the natural world. Soon they find themselves being followed by a bedraggled boy, even younger than they, who calls himself Jimmy Blevins. Despite Rawlins’ scornful protestations, they become a threesome.
Blevins is an astonishing personage. John Grady carries a "thumb-buster" of a pistol and Rawlins a small carbine, but Blevins cherishes a powerful Colt pistol with which he is extraordinarily accurate and which establishes his bona fides with his new companions. Blevins also suffers from a pathological fear of electrical storms induced by the deaths by lightning of several of his family members, and this terror eventually contributes to his death.
During a bad storm, the frightened Blevins loses his clothes and his horse.
This misfortune sets off a chain of events that will eventually lead to Blevins’ death and much misery for the other two, for when they find Blevins’ horse later in a little village corral, the impetuous Blevins liberates it and rides off. As a result, they are all identified as horse thieves.
With no knowledge of Blevins’ fate, John Grady and Rawlins sign on as ranch hands at a hacienda in northern Mexico. John Grady’s affinities with horses earn him a special job and much favored treatment. The owner’s daughter, the beautiful Alejandra Rocha y Villaréal, falls in love with John Grady and seduces him. When her father discovers the love affair, he sets the Mexican authorities after the two young men. They are hauled off, charged with horse theft, and reunited with the long-suffering Blevins in a vile jail. As they are being transported to more permanent quarters of incarceration, Blevins is taken into the woods and unceremoniously shot. John Grady nearly dies in a vicious prison knife fight, but the two youths are saved by the intervention of Alejandra’s haughty, aristocratic grandaunt, the duenna Alfonsa.
Rawlins goes home, but John Grady returns to the hacienda to plead his romantic case with the duenna. He fails, being instructed on the gap between Alejandra’s high birth and his own low prospects. After a last passionate assignation with the girl, John Grady leaves for Texas.First, though, he kidnaps the cruel jailer and then escapes with the three horses he and his companions had ridden into Mexico, visiting severe retribution on his jailer hostage in the process. Back home, he visits Rawlins, now apparently converted to a settled life, and in the last paragraph is seen riding through the dust of a Texas sunset: "He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come."