Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses

Originally posted April, 2012:


As an American who has spent most of his life in England I have dual nationality by way of experience if not by legal right, not that the latter would make any real difference. As a writer I have and use both voices – often together; often separately – and as a reader I make a varying preferential choice for either of these two voices.

I feel that my best writing comes from my American voice and it is when it is conversational and attains a natural rhythm and sound. My English voice – though this is going to be quite simplistic – is when I impose structures/form on that writing, for example in my sonnets when I use rhyme in quite an obvious way. As I’ve said above, there are times when these are kept quite separate. It’s more complex than this, and I have explained more comprehensively elsewhere – though not in this blog – but this shorthand will do for now.

For those few following this blog you will know that I have been reading the American voice of late: quite a bit of Steinbeck, always Ray Carver, Patrick deWitt [I know he’s Canadian, but…] and most recently Cormac McCarthy. In trying out my next new read I thought I’d have a go at McEwan’s Atonement. I couldn’t get into it: far too English. Brilliantly so, a luxuriant prose in many respects, and so tuned into representation of character, thoughts and feelings, and sense of place, especially inside and interiors and what these too represent. I made about five pages.


Then I found I actually had McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses and hadn’t read yet [as I’ve said, I’m catching up]. Hooked immediately. I love the simple flow – deceptively so, of course – of the narrative and dialogue. And as I continue to make simplistic claims, another appeal at the moment is his ability to write about the exterior. By this I mean the expanse of land and open spaces McCarthy can write about because of where his stories are set. But it is more than this and below is a particular example of that American voice I want to celebrate. I’m trying to not make this sound like a lesson, but that’s difficult, so you can either listen or chat amongst yourselves. Here’s the passage, the fifth paragraph into the opening chapter:

As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes creating out of the night the endless faceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.

It’s that long, wonderful sentence. And it’s because it follows the first three short ones – the most brilliant set-up. I think Raymond Chandler is one of America’s finest modern writers, and apart from his unique talent with similes, he is master of the long compound sentence. He is also master of mixing up his sentence lengths. But McCarthy’s takes this further. It is in the richness of the grammatical make-up of that long gaze, represented by the sentence, and how we as readers try to take in all the detail too, detail heightened by the weightiness of verbs, surprise naming [nouns yes, but it is more than this] and the succession of ‘and’ connectives that should jar but don’t because where they lead is too demanding of our attention.

Hey, I said you could chat – I didn’t say you could do that! If you’re not interested, I apologise, but do me the courtesy. Your homework is to turn to the third page and read the even longer paragraph beginning In the evening he settled his horse and rode…. The example of the meandering compound sentence is even more elaborate here. And it isn’t a style that McCarthy labours to produce. It happens here at the beginning and then tends to disappear. But you keep hoping to hear more.


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