MJ’s American Lit: All the Pretty Horses


I don’t review literature—I reflect on it. There are a thousand different sites you can visit to see how many stars Joe Blow from Fuckinaw County gave a novel like this so I’ll spare you my own star count. I’ll just tell you what I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Here’s a brief synopsis first.


In the 1940s, two young teens get bored with their rural Texan lives. One day, they saddle up their horses and head south to Mexico. Along the way, they meet several different characters who serve as vessels for McCarthy’s philosophy on love, happiness, economic inequality, the modernization of America, and life in general. The boys end up getting in some deep shit involving Mexican state troopers, stolen horses, gunplay, and a rancher’s daughter. They eventually find themselves in a situation that tests their friendship and makes them reevaluate what’s important in life.

All the Pretty Horses is not just a novel, it’s a writing clinic and I believe everyone should read it at least once. Here’s why:


For those of you who never spent time lost in the pages of McCarthy’s novels, he is a master of setting. McCarthy’s soul is linked to the American West in a primal way. His world envelopes the reader. The words he chooses and the way he uses them trigger images in the reader’s mind with little effort. Basically, it’s not hard to see what he wants you to see (most of the time). I know some of you out there might be saying “no shit, that’s what an author should do,” but the truth is people fuck up setting more often than not. It’s all about the 3 S’s y’all: Sights, Smells, Sounds. McCarthy’s descriptions are rugged with an underlying beauty and that’s a tough combination to pull off. His tour of northern Mexico is nothing short of magical.


The characters do a good enough job driving the action. That being said, don’t expect anyone like McCarthy’s Judge from the excellent Blood Merdian. The protagonist, John Grady Cole, is relatable and likable enough. He’s a strong, silent type kind of like Alan Ladd in Shane or Ryan Gosling in Drive. Cole speaks Spanish fluently which opens up a lot of neat conversations with townsfolk (who serve as McCarthy’s voice for the most part) but he’s more of a listener than a talker, which is fine. Lacey Rawlins is the more vocal of the two. Pessimistic and distrustful, Rawlins’ dialogue foreshadows much of the boys’ misfortune. Nevertheless, his loyalty and brotherly love for Cole is nothing short of admirable. Then there’s ole Jimmy Blevins. Blevins tags along right before Cole and Rawlins cross into Mexico. Blevins earns the ire of Rawlins early on. His screw-ups drive the majority of the plot.


If you’ve read McCarthy before, you already know what you’re getting into. There will, however, be an adjustment period for the rest of you. McCarthy HATES quotation marks. He actually hates punctuation in general but the lack of quotation marks is the most noticeable. Yeah, dialogue can get pretty confusing. Oh, and like Blood Meridian, a large part of the dialogue is in Spanish so keep that diccionario handy!

All that considered, the dialogue is enjoyable and interesting overall.


Meh, not my favorite but the plot is lean and moves along well. Its main purpose is to introduce us to the characters and situations necessary to facilitate McCarthy’s many thematic messages. At its core, All the Pretty Horses is like a Western version of Kerouac’s On the Road. There is a bit of forbidden romance thrown in as one of the boys gets the hots for the daughter of a successful rancher. The sweet, chewy center of this story is in McCarthy’s masterful descriptions of northern Mexico and the insightful stories of the many people the boys encounter on their adventure.

In 2000, Billy Bob Thornton (yes, Bad Santa himself) directed a movie based on this work. Here’s the trailer

Yeah. A thirty-year-old Matt Damon playing 16-year-old John Grady… okay. The movie was panned by critics worldwide and earned a shit-tacular 32% on the Tomatometer. Why do I even bring this up in a literary review? Because it shows that the plot is nothing more than a bus driver. It moves us along while we look at the beautiful scenery and listen to McCarthy educate us about the erosion of the American cowboy way of life. That’s why the movie wasn’t successful. None of McCarthy’s books were ever meant to be movies (besides No Country for Old Men, I think). Like much of his work, the magic of All the Pretty Horses is best experienced by reading, not watching.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

Cormac McCarthy is a world-class wordsmith. His descriptions of the West are jaw-dropping. The multi-page monologues delivered by some of the ancillary characters serve as a voice for McCarthy’s many themes such as freedom, love, adversity, injustice, and the fading ways of the West. I believe everyone would benefit from reading this book. It is a love letter to an almost forgotten part of America’s past.

Thank you for your time! If you liked my review then feel free to check out what I thought of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot.

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