All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. 302 pp)

Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933. One of six children, Cormac’s family moved multiple times in his childhood as his father accepted different occupations. In 1951, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee majoring in Liberal Arts. Midway through his studies, McCarthy served in the Air Force for four years. After his service, McCarthy returned to college writing his first short stories. In 1959 and 1960, he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for Creative Writing. Mccarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Several years, grants, and fellowships later, McCarthy published Suttree, Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses marking his rise in literary acclaim. McCarthy is widely considered one of the great modern American authors and many of his works have been translated to film.

An Overture

Acting as the first installment of the Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses reads like an overture. The prose flows like beautiful introductory notes setting up the themes and characters for the rest of the piece.
In this book, we meet John Grady Cole, a teenaged horseman set on adventure as his Texan hometown and his occupational prospects fizzle in a puddle of wasted dreams. Packing few possessions, John Grady travels toward the border with his best friend, Rawlins.
During the gestating stages of the duo’s adventure, they meet Blevins, a young kid just north of thirteen. While his pin-pointed shooting accuracy offers an asset to the group, Blevins’ eccentricities and rash behavior provide extensive difficulty as the story unfolds.

Pure Poetic Prose


All the Pretty Horses illustrates some of McCarthy’s most poetic writing. Discussing a horse, the central transportational character in the story, he pens,

“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. Sin la caridad de estas manos no tengas nada. Ni comida ni agua ni hijos. Soy yo que traigo las yeguas de las montañas, las yeguas jóvenes, las yeguas salvajes y ardientes. While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood 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.” (128)

Introducing another theme seemingly of critical importance to the trilogy, McCarthy discusses the notion of fate versus free will especially in regard to choices of life, death, and love:

“In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was. It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I don’t believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God – who knows all that can be known – seems powerless to change.” (239)


The Beginnings

Ultimately, it is unfair to judge All the Pretty Horses by itself. The writing is gorgeous, and the setting, rustic. The characters are well developed and the tome pushes me toward continuing the series. Just like a well-written overture introduces musical themes that will further develop as the piece expands, so too does All the Pretty Horses poetically build on themes of fate, free will, love, death, and what it means to be alive. Without knowing the rest of the symphony, I highly suggested reading the overture known as All the Pretty Horses.

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  • Jessica

    I have this on my shelf and will read this at some point but I have to fully concentrate on his writing. The only others I have read are The Road and Blood Meridian which I loved so I am looking forward to reading this.

  • the Ink Slinger

    Great review! I've enjoyed every McCarthy book I've read (particularly The Road), and All the Pretty Horses looks like another good one to check out. I like how you described it as an “overture”. Very evocative. 🙂

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