I like most of the fiction that I read. Whether that's because my tastes are indiscriminate or because I pre-screen my reading according to taste I'm not sure. But whatever the case, I'm more likely to talk a book up than down on completion.
Even so, it's fairly rare that I read something that I really feel like raving about. And although I'd call a lot of books great, it's not so often, upon closing the covers of a book, that I feel that I've been in the presence of sheer literary genius. The most recent three awfully good reads I've had have been Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, J M Coetzee's Disgrace, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The Wizard of the Crow. I've also indulged in the very good first two novels of Stieg Larsson's Millennium series.
But if Rushdie ranges poetically across the recent history of a subcontinent, if Coetzee horrifies with his account of crime, violence and powerlessness, and if Ngugi lampoons Africa's dictators with unparalleled ferocity, then Cormac McCarthy, for me, paints an exquisite verbal panorama as broad in its insight into our world as the landscape it plays out against is vast. All the Pretty Horses is the best novel and the most amazing writing that I've run across in many years.
It portrays two young men (John Grady and Rawlins), born on the Texas borderlands, who are dismayed as the lifestyle and values they hold dear--because it is what they have known--come to look increasingly antiquated in the world. Theirs is a displacement of place as well as of character, and they watch as much in dismay as their steeds are driven from the roads by the automobile as they wince at personal betrayal and caustic violence--because theirs is a world of almost liturgical codes and honor if not of actual law.
McCarthy's novel also works as a meditation on geography, or rather on an actual place that is more potent than the national borders it bestrides. The Americans who cross the border into Mexico have more in common with what they seek there, than they would with any idea of, for example, the United States. And the Mexicans they meet along the way might be surprised at the distance they've travelled--it's a long way from Texas to the Old World that John Grady and Rawlins find in the hacienda high in the mountains--but they recognise much of themselves in the interlopers from Texas. The geographic solidarity is borne out by the natural presence of Spanish names in the San Angelo cemetery (where John Grady's abuela is buried alongside his father), names of people, no doubt, who would be as out of place in Mexico City as Grady would be in New York.
But it is also a place which is a kind of paradise, concealing between literary and imaginary gilding, a certain hardness, which makes room, when necessary for a wonder that seems genuine.
"I never knowed there was such a place as this.
I guess there's probably every kind of place you can think of.
Rawlins nodded. I wouldn't of thought of this one, he said.
It was raining somewhere out in the desert. They could smell the wet creosote on the wind."*
So powerful is McCarthy's writing that at times the storyline becomes almost incidental. As a reader, you are torn between a compulsion to follow up the plot and the temptation to lose yourself in contemplation of an evocation of the West that seems too powerful to exist solely on the page. But if San Angelo and La Purisima seem dangerously real, perhaps it is because they evoke so many associations of the West. I was reminded of people I've never known, and recalled places I've never been because there is something in McCarthy's West that didn't die when John Grady rode south, into the red desert, whose "bloodred dust blew down out of the sun."** Nor did the frail yet knowing humanity which McCarthy captures so well.
"Luis told them tales of the country and the people who lived in it and the people who died and how they died [...] He said that war had destroyed the country and that men believe the cure for war is war as the curandero prescribes the serpent's flesh for its bite. He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold. His own father said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said the he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so".***