Sticking with the western theme I started last week, here is a reading response to Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses that I wrote in a “literary topography” class back in grad school…
Throughout All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy draws attention to a number of crossings that are crucial to both driving the story and exploring many of the themes that underpin interests found throughout his work. These crossings take on a variety of forms that help to shape and drive the narrative.
The most obvious crossing takes place at the transitional space of dawn when John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins leave out from their Texas home into the unknown (at least to them) lands of Mexico. It is not long after their entrance into the country that they have a physical crossing with the kid, Jimmy Blevins, whose fate because intertwined with their own. This theme of crossing and the introduction of potentially potent variables into our lives that we have no true control over is a recurrent one for McCarthy. It finds powerful expression in No Country for Old Men where the villain, Anton Chigurh, explicitly informs those whose lives he has left subject to a coin toss that the fate that brought him, death, and the coin together at once were each independent and unavoidable.
Another crossing of critical importance in the narrative is the physical and emotional one between John Grady Cole and Alejandra. Their sexual crossing and illicit love supplies the impetus for driving the narrative from the pastoral ideal Cole and Rawlins find on Don Hector’s horse ranch to the subsequent hell of a Mexican prison. The juxtaposition of these events (and crossing between them) clearly marks John Grady Cole in a profoundly existential way. Recounting the events later to the Judge, Cole wonders why anyone would make him out to be anything special. The guilt and loss he is carrying from his accumulated crossings have scarred him in both body and spirit.
The final crossing I will address comes with the heroes return to his native land, deeply changed by the experiences taken up in his quest. Unfortunately for Cole, he quickly realizes that the transitional moments narrated in this interfacing between two worlds have effectively left him without country in either place. He cannot return to the Mexico that has scarred him, and the Texas home he is returning to is no longer the same (owing to the death of his father while he was away, as well as the fact that his mother has presumably sold off the ranch land that he initially wanted to run at the outset of the book upon his grandfathers death). John Grady Cole is left to ride into the West a troubled figure without a clear destination.
This tenuous nature of country and our attachments to it is a major theme of McCarthy and is echoed throughout the book. For some (like the vaquero's Cole visits when he returns to speak to Alejandra's aunt, Doña Alfonsa) " a man leaves much when he leaves his own country...the weather and seasons that form a land form also the the inner fortunes of men in their generations are passed on to their children and are not so easily come by otherwise." In other words, our places continually interface and exchange with our interior being, producing the internal topographies of our existence. Seemingly when these places are trespassed, violated, or otherwise destroyed we are left in the position of Cole, riding out looking desperately for country that can sustain us.