Sometimes when reading a Cormac McCarthy novel I can’t help but wonder what kind of man he is, what kind of man would create such bleak and miserable worlds? This is pointless since I know from his biography that he is to all appearances a genial and downright nice human being. And perhaps writing books like this helps him in that regard, serves as a form of exorcism, his demons expelled onto paper allowing him go on living peacefully. But these are just useless random thoughts, the sort that float up when reading McCarthy.
The book tells the tale of John Grady a 16 year old cowboy from Texas and his friend Lacey Rawlins who is older but defers to Grady’s unspoken leadership. Grady’s mother plans to sell the family ranch on which he grew up and move to the city, this coincides with end of the cowboy era in America, the only life Grady ever envisioned for himself. So he and Rawlins cross the border to Mexico on horseback hoping to live the kind of life that is fast dying in the states. On the way they meet another boy, Blevins, younger than them but heading straight for trouble, trouble in which they will be later dragged into with dire consequences.
They find work in a ranch in Mexico and soon Grady’s skill and character earn him a promotion and the respect of the ranch owner. It is here that he meets Alejandra, the ranchers beautiful (aren’t they all) daughter and the two of them fall in love. It is also here that he meets her grandmother, a wise but merciless women who understands immediately what is happening between the two of them and objects to the relationship. To our modern sensibilities this might seem cruel, but the Duena Alfonsa understands the world in ways the young teenagers in love do not, cannot, and her actions although brutal, are within her mental framework, reasonable actions taken to protect her granddaughter from dangers she can’t even imagine. From there the novel devolves into the violence that all Cormac McCarthy novels eventually sink into, like a maelstrom of human degradation and insanity, some sailing into it head on, others, like this book, only skirting on its edges. I won’t spoil the plot anymore, but if you are reading a Cormac McCarthy novel, it is hardly a spoiler to say that his books are kind of like the old joke about Russian history, “something happened and then everything became much worse”.
Despite being more sympathetic than other works by McCarthy, I found myself relating to this book less oddly enough. The main idea seems to be the decay of the western civilization, here seen through the death of the cowboys ethos of freedom, the land becoming enclosed and urban, leading to mental decay. But the thing is, I never particularly cared for the cowboy myth, in fact I always found it to be rather ridiculous, give me a bustling city over a Texan field any day. So I found it hard to share the main characters dismay at the death of this era and its morals. It took me a long time to finish this rather short book, never a good sign. That is not to say there aren’t joys to be had in this book, McCarthy is genius with words, paints mental pictures of haunting beauty. And of course his understanding of human nature is second to none, this is a coming of age tale reminiscent of Huck Finn but far darker, in fact if a I had to describe Cormac McCarthy in a nutshell I’d be tempted to simply say he is Mark Twain but far darker. To me at least that sounds promising.