BOOK REVIEW / When the mystery is that there is no mystery: 'All the Pretty Horses' - Cormac McCarthy: Picador, 14.99 pounds: Scott Bradfield on Cormac McCarthy and his wide-screen parables of the American West

CORMAC McCARTHY'S formidable prose is indebted to the Old Testament. His landscapes are wide, blazing and biblical with conflagrations. His characters are not thick, psychologically resonant creations, but are subordinate to the breadth and muscle of the world that surrounds them. In the Old Testament, of course, the surrounding world belongs to God. But in McCarthy's novels, it is nature - nasty, brutish and short. 'I always figured they was a God,' mutters one of Suttree's Knoxville disreputables.

'I just never did like him.'

McCarthy's world is an existential one in which men face two choices - either to battle or to die; the female characters, meanwhile, cook and sew or sell themselves on the street. There are times when McCarthy resembles a classic Thirties naturalist like Steinbeck or Lawrence, his characters being commonly mired in the muck and muddle of their own animal identities. But unlike the classic naturalists, McCarthy doesn't consider human beings to be corrupted by the civilisation that contains them; instead they are the bearers of their own violent, irrepressible natures. McCarthy's characters tend to be murderers, indigents, liars and thieves; relentlessly brutalised by the world, they brutalise one another in turn. They lack the consolation of interior lives, suffering and surviving with a sort of indistinguishable vacuity.

The scope of McCarthy's first five novels is claustrophobic and messy. In his first two - The Orchard Keeper (1965) and The Outer Dark (1968) - men are casually murdered and a baby abandoned while a lot of whoring and drinking gets carried on in the white trash mountains of Tennessee; these first books read a little like Erskine Caldwell on crack. Child of God, published in 1973, proceeds into darker comic territory, telling the story of a serial killer and necrophiliac who is treated no less sympathetically than any other character in the McCarthy canon - which is to say, not very sympathetically at all. In Suttree, the eponymous protagonist abandons his wife, child and inheritance in order to live off his fishing, disdain regular employment, and associate with outcasts. He is Clint-Eastwood-laconic, which means he's a relatively dependable sort; in McCarthy's books, as in traditional American mythology, it's the educated, talkative types who are the most dangerous.

Despite their black comedy and sordid melodrama, none of these books prepares the reader for McCarthy's fifth novel, Blood Meridian, a wide-screen, astonishing parable of the American West in which human beings chop, defile, massacre, maim and dismember one another in every conceivable fashion. It reads like all of Sam Peckinpah's late films edited together with the plots excised; the atrocities are rendered in such extraordinary prose that beauty is often indistinguishable from the horror. This is, of course, McCarthy's point.

'A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with,' pronounces the judge in Blood Meridian, a Satanic dispenser of wisdom and gunpowder. 'He can know his heart, but he don't want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there.' For McCarthy, self-knowledge is a dangerous temptation; whenever his characters inquire into themselves, they discover nothing more lasting than the blood that spills from their veins, or the eyeless sockets that stare from their skulls. 'Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery,' the judge concludes late in the novel, before he has finished educating everybody to the ground. 'The mystery is that there is no mystery.'

In his sixth and best novel, All the Pretty Horses (the first in his projected 'Border Trilogy'), McCarthy attempts some things he hasn't attempted before, and mostly he succeeds. The central protagonist is McCarthy's first certifiably 'good man', a 16-year-old boy named John Grady Cole. As the novel begins, Cole's history has just been yanked out from under him like a tatty carpet. His grandfather is dead and his parents divorced; while Cole watches his father die slowly in a motel room, his mother sells off the family ranch. The solid world of work, family and history is being dissolved away by a world of supermarts and automobiles. Cole wants the old world back.

Cole runs away with a friend, Lacey Rawlins, searching for a land where he can ride his horse uninterrupted by fences, and where property is constantly improved through hard, honest labour rather than parcelled off in lots. What Cole discovers, however, is the same muddy, awful horrors which usually destroy McCarthy's characters - bad love, dishonest cops, bloody conflicts, and people made dangerous by their disillusionment. Unlike the characters in Faulkner (the writer to whom McCarthy is most often compared), McCarthy's people endure rather than prevail; yet in Horses John Grady Cole approaches more heroic stature. Refusing to let the bloody world reduce him to meaninglessness, Cole seeks instead to attach some value to it, some formal signature. It is arguable that, by the end of this fine novel, he succeeds.

For the most part, All the Pretty Horses reads like the sort of classic western revisionism that can be found in films like Eastwood's Unforgiven or Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. McCarthy succeeds best as a writer about men and male friendships, and neither the love story at the centre of this book, nor the female character, Alejandra, ever really come off. But the prose, as always in McCarthy's work, is stunning, and the story far more absorbing than that in any of his previous books. As a result, All the Pretty Horses is the best place to start for anyone interested in exploring McCarthy's weird and violent fictional landscapes. It possesses both intelligence and integrity, and while the world it describes may not always seem real, it always feels realised.

'HE DIDN'T look back but he could see her in the windows of the Federal Building across the street standing there and she was still standing there when he reached the corner and stepped out of the glass forever.

He dismounted and opened the gate and walked the horse through and closed the gate and walked the horse along the fence. He dropped down to see if he could skylight Rawlins but Rawlins wasnt there. He dropped the reins at the fence corner and watched the house. The horse sniffed the air and pushed its nose against his elbow.

That you, bud? Rawlins whispered.

You better hope so.

Rawlins walked the horse down and stood and looked back at the house.

You ready? said John Grady.

Yeah.

They suspect anything?

Naw.

Well let's go.

Hang on a minute. I just piled everthing on top of the horse and walked him out here.

John Grady picked up the reins and swung up into the saddle. Yonder goes a light, he said.

Damn.

You'll be late for your own funeral.

It aint even four yet. You're early.

Well let's go. There goes the barn.

Rawlins was trying to get his soogan tied on behind the saddle. There's a switch in the kitchen, he said. He aint to the barn yet. He might not even be goin out there. He might just be gettin him a glass of milk or somethin.

He might just be loadin a shotgun or somethin.

Rawlins mounted up. You ready? he said.

I been ready.

They rode out along the fence line and across the open pastureland. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The lights fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing'.

(Photograph omitted)

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