Reading this book was like reading a foreign language, and not only because there were lots of passages in Spanish. It really is a story about a world that is totally unknown to me, the American West. You might think you know something about 'cowboys' from watching old films (and I was quite a John Wayne fan as a child), but I get an inkling that this book gets a little closer to the real thing. The writing is just very evocative and McCarthy creates intense images of both the natural environment they live in and the life that people lead there. Within a couple of pages you feel as if you are drawn right into a world that is vast, empty and untameable, where all the rules and expectations of modern life just don't exist. There is a whole different set of values at play here. I felt like I had no point of contact with it at all, it really was completely alien. So you just have to allow yourself to go along for the ride.
Two friends, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, head off from Texas to Mexico to find work, and to a certain extent, adventure. They meet a young lad who calls himself Blevins, who's companionship drags them into a whole mess of trouble. There are horses, lots of them, and of course a strikingly beautiful girl, but that is the only extent to which you might say that the story is a cliché. The world they live in is a 'man's world', and the men are very tough, and that is the only thing that is valued. They almost relish how tough life is, as if it proves that toughness is important. They encounter extreme poverty, but people who always offer hospitality. The people seem to have a deep sense of connection with the land and their country. The two friends are intensely loyal, they rely on and look out for each other. They meet some men who are rounding up wild horses and end up working at the ranch with them. Grady proves to have quite a talent with the horses which earns him much respect and he quickly becomes a favoured employee, which is how he encounters the young girl, Alejandra. They spend some time just being cowboys, doing what cowboys do, then, just when you think things are going well for them, they find themselves arrested and implicated in horse stealing with their former travelling companion Blevins. The camaraderie of the people they have worked with is contrasted sharply with the extreme brutality of the prison environment, where they are locked up and expected to fend for themselves. It is quite shocking, and even frightening, made more so by their extremely fatalistic attitude to life. This is not just the boys themselves but all the people they encounter. They accept everything that happens, almost passively it feels, as if from birth they have never expected much from life, except that it will be 'nasty, brutish and short'. In a world where money is everything the poor have no power over their lives, no expectation of being able to control what happens, and I guess that this is accepted and then passed on from generation to generation.
While I did enjoy the writing the descriptions did get somewhat laboured in places, for example, a lengthy explanation of what he did to break the wild horses and the graphic description of the prison fight, and the images of the desert and the wild landscape in all it's forms became a little repetitive. The lecture on Mexican history from Alejandra's aunt seemed somewhat contrived, to add background to the book without adding anything much to the story. I was very irritated by a lack of a translation of the Spanish passages. While some of it was obviously exchange of greetings and everyday conversation which I have enough French to guess at, there were parts where real important, plot-relevant conversation was happening in Spanish with no translation, it would have been easy enough to put it in a footnote.
Anyway, their somewhat desperate situation is resolved by the intervention of the Alejandra's great aunt, who buys their freedom, with the inevitable proviso that Grady does not see her again. Rawlins decides to return home but Grady goes off inexplicably in search of their horses and the police captain who arrested them. I was left completely bemused by this part of the story, it seemed a strange reaction to having got out of one bad situation to put yourself deliberately into another. It all gets very messy and you fear for a while that there cannot possibly be any kind of positive outcome. All the Pretty Horses was not a very 'nice' book and although I enjoyed it I was left mainly with the feeling that I was glad it was all over.
So how might you end a story about cowboys ... well he rides off into the sunset obviously.