Until recently McCarthy was the most famous author you never heard of, though he won a MacArthur "genius" award in 1981. None of his previous five novels—long, non-chronological and daunting, if Faulknerian in prose—had sold more than 5,000 copies in hardback. Now this 58-year-old Tennessean living in El Paso is being lifted into the pantheon of great American writers by a legion of critics and fellow writers. And All the Pretty Horses is the reason.
Horses puts all that is daring and original in McCarthy into a much more accessible package, a best-selling western that travels Lonesome Dove territory by way of cinema noir.
For the first time, moreover, McCarthy gives us, instead of his usual outcasts, a protagonist we can root for. It's 1949, and John Grady Cole, 16 and no longer needed on the family's West Texas ranch, saddles up his horse and rides into Mexico. Joined by two other boys, his journey begins as a coming-of-age saga. Then storm clouds gather, literally and symbolically: "Shrouded in the black thunderheads the distant lightning glowed mutely like welding seen through foundry smoke. As if repairs were under way at some flawed place in the iron dark of the world."
John Grady's genius with horses wins him a job on a hacienda and leads to a romance with the estate owner's rebellious daughter. But at the core of the novel is a descent into that iron dark of the world, and McCarthy's fascination with evil takes center stage. Only near the end does the book reward us with a touch of kindness.
McCarthy has said that Horses is the first of a trilogy. This is unsettling, because in Horses exalted moments have an ominous ring, and violence is often coiled just out of sight. But the darkness also offers rich compensations: McCarthy's utterly steady eye—and a voice that makes the English language new. (Knopf, $21)