Cormac McCarthy is to some degree a very distinguished writer of a normally cheap genre of fiction: as Brewton claims, McCarthy's goal in All the Pretty Horses was to "tell authentic westerns using the basic formulas of the genre while avoiding the false sentimentality, uncritical nostalgia, and unearned happy endings that often characterize the genre in its popular forms." (133). But what kind of representation of the American West can we expect from a novel that takes its cues from popular culture? McCarthy seems aware of the paradox. Near the opening of All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy's protagonist John Grady Cole has a youthful reverie while staring at a painted picture of horses rampant:
On the wall opposite above the sideboard was an oilpainting of horses. There were half a dozen of them breaking through a pole corral and their manes were long and blowing and their eyes wild. They'd been copied out of a book. They had the long Andalusian nose and the bones of their faces showed Barb blood. You could see the hindquarters of the foremost few, good hindquarters and heavy enough to make a cuttinghorse. As if maybe they had Steeldust in their blood. But nothing else matched and no such horse ever was that he had seen and he'd once asked his grandfather what kind of horses they were and his grandfather looked up from his plate at the painting as if he'd never seen it before and he said those are picturebook horses and went on eating (15-6)
Already we are confronting the difference between verifiable reality and an artistic representation of it which is something of an improvement: the young Cole, who knows the breeding of horses on a Texas cattle-ranch well enough to imagine the real bloodlines that might produce such fantastical creatures. But of course, what intrigues Cole most is the quality of wildness in the horses, whereas to his grandfather there can be nothing more domesticated than a work of art hanging in the home or a children's picturebook. To Cole's grandfather, for whom the "wildness" of the American West might have still been an accessible fact, there is nothing noteworthy or attractive about the artistic representation of that wildness -- but to Cole it is romantic. I would suggest that McCarthy's view of his protagonist is one who is, like Quixote, intoxicated by the artistic representation of a certain code of behavior -- a sort of cowboy chivalry -- with no basis in actual reality. All the Pretty Horses looks on its surface like a novel about the passing of the old West, but in reality it seems to be about the passing of the Western as a viable genre.
Yet I think there is also more to John Grady Cole's wild "oilpainting" than we might initially suspect. Within the stylistic framework of McCarthy's half-Joycean, half-Teutonic compoundwords, the reader's eye is quick to note a visual correspondence between the "oilpainting" and the "oilcompany" who will swallow the ranch of Cole's grandfather whole, prompting the young man to go on his travels: both represent a form of inauthenticity which will cut the Texas landscape and its inhabitants, equine or otherwise, to fit a Procrustean bed of pre-ordained and marketable commodities. The "oilpainting" no less than the "oilcompany" are to some degree responsible for John Grady Cole's intellectual plight in . The inauthenticity of the West that Cole now confronts reflects the way that prior representation affects McCarthy's narrative in various ways -- allusively, but using our expectations of genre to subvert the reader's expectations at every turn. As an example of such allusiveness, we may note that, early in his travels, John Grady Cole and his companion Rawlins will contemplate crossing the border into Mexico by looking at a map and marching in to where its representation fails. Faithful readers of McCarthy are already aware of a sense of revisionism here, but it is a revision of McCarthy's own prior work: the plot of McCarthy's 1985 Blood Meridian (which reads stylistically as though Sam Peckinpah had hired Sir Thomas Browne to write a treatment for The Wild Bunch) involves a journey from Texas into Mexico at a historical moment when the ownership of these largely uninhabited territories was contested by the governments of both the U.S. And Mexico. Yet the protagonist of Blood Meridian, Judge Holden, is a keen nineteenth-century naturalist as surely as he is a bloodthirsty nihilist, and seems like McCarthy's gloss on the old trope of "murdering to dissect." In All the Pretty Horses everything is softened, giving credence to Sullivan's claim that the novel, within the context of his previous work, "presents McCarthy in a new and gentler mode" (297). certainly there is violence depicted here (particularly in the scenes set in the prison, where the "papazote" Perez will make sure that both Cole and Rawlins are attacked with knives) but overall the novel seems to point in the direction of its title, with origins in a Southern folksong originally collected by Alan Lomax. The song that gives McCarthy his title is another example of how artistic representation can mediate the experience of reality. "All the Pretty Horses," also known as "Hush-a-bye," is a lullaby, which offers the baby a reward if the baby would consent to shut up and fall asleep:
Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you'll have cake,
And all the pretty little horses.
Black and bay, dapple and grey,
Coach and six little horses,
Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby. ("All the Pretty Horses [Hush-a-Bye"])
In other words, the reward of horses -- or the vanished culture of ranching and cowboys that grips Cole's imagination -- was always never more than a child's dream before settling down to sleep.
But again, examining the moment where John Grady Cole and Rawlins contemplate stepping off the representational portion of the map and into its void, it is worth noting that to a certain degree this also contains a specific sort of literary allusion:
They reached the Devil's River by midmorning and watered the horses and stretched out in the shade of a stand of black-willow and looked at the map. It was an oilcompany roadmap that Rawlins had picked up at the cafe and he looked at it and he looked south toward the gap in the low hills. There were roads and rivers and towns on the American side of the map as far south as the Rio Grande and beyond that all was white.
It don't show nothin down there, does it? said Rawlins.
You reckon it aint never been mapped? (34)
I think almost any serious student of the twentieth century novel will recognize this as a conscious nod in the direction of the opening narration by Marlow in Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' (Heart of Darkness)
In the case of Marlow it will involve a journey into Africa, and in the case of John Grady Cole it will involve crossing the Rio Grande, but in both cases what will be confronted is a sort of racial otherness. But here, again, we are confronting old narratives subverted, as the entire romantic idyll between John Grady and Alejandra seems like a race-reversed revision of the 1956 James Dean movie Giant. The Edna Ferber novel on which Giant was based dates from 1952, and of course All the Pretty Horses itself is set in 1949, so the similarity between the romantic subplots of each -- which merely replaces the rich white Texan who deliberately insults the poor Mexican girl his son has married with a rich Mexican who incarcerates the poor gringo his daughter trysts with -- must be purely intentional. But in some sense, McCarthy asks us to regard the Hollywood representation of Texas and the West in the way that John Grady Cole will regard the stage drama which he attends before setting off: "He'd the notion that there would be something in the story itself to tell him about the way the world was or was becoming but there was not. There was nothing in it at all." (21)
To a certain degree, McCarthy is writing not so much an elegy for the American West as an elegy for the American Western. Indeed, All the Pretty Horses is presumably the first Western novel whose climax features Indians pitying the poor cowboy, as though they had been contemplating Frederick Jackson Turner:
In four days' riding he crossed the Pecos at Iraan Texas and rode up out of the river breaks where the pumpjacks in the Yates Field ranged against the skyline rose and dipped like mechanical birds. Like great primitive birds…