"You never combed your hair that way in your life," muses John Grady Cole as he looks upon his grandfather's body in the funeral cloth. All the Pretty Horses opens with sixteen year-old Grady mourning the death of his mother's father, contemplating the fate of the ranch he has lived on his whole life and will soon leave.
Built in 1872, the ranch belonged to his grandfather only because all the other seven Grady boys died before the age of twenty-five. Now 1949, his grandfather's death means the Grady name is buried with him - he had only one child, John Grady's mother.
John Grady's parents no longer speak to each other, but we learn more about each of their characters in the course of interacting with their son. John Grady resents his mother, but the conversations dances cryptically around the reasons. Though she owns the ranch, she is an aspiring actress and allusions to her career imply that she doesn't spend most of her time in San Angelo. Moreover, she has apparently made a decision significant enough to embitter both her husband and child. ("You know it aint what I wanted don't you?" John Grady's father says helplessly.) Snippets of conversations and aborted scenes only heighten the impact of the impending revelation - a gloomy exchange with his friend Rawlins, a tense, terse interaction with his mother in the house, another inconclusive meeting with his father.
John Grady's father is an army veteran and his persistent cough combined with his guilt-ridden smoking suggest that he suffers from some form of emphysema. He has difficulty communicating with his son - his words are meek and ridden with guilt - and their exchanges often lapse into awkward silence. The last of these conversations ends when his father hands him a key to the hall closet and tells him to go get his belated Christmas present. John Grady opens the closet to find a brand new saddle.
As if the saddle silently encourages him to find the courage to leave San Angelo, John Grady finally confronts his mother at dinner, where it is revealed that she plans to sell the ranch. John Grady seems to be beating a dead horse when he asks her to lease it or buy it on loan. She rebuffs his appeal once more, claiming that the ranch yields no money and that he's too young before walking out.
The boy visits Mr. Franklin, the family lawyer, to determine whether he has any say in the fate of the land. John Grady also learns from Mr. Franklin that his parents are not only separated, but officially divorced.
His mother is often gone in the months that follow. One night, he journeys to San Antonio to see her act in a play. He watches the show intently, hoping that "there would be something in the story itself to tell him about the way the world was or was becoming" but he finds nothing, "nothing in it at all." Later that night, he sees his mother in the lobby of the hotel with a well-dressed man on her arm. He asks the hotel clerk to look for a Mrs. Cole in his book, but the clerk finds no one by that name registered.
As if finally convinced to part with his dreams of running the ranch, John Grady severs his connections to San Angelo. In March, he goes riding with his father for the last time. He seeks out a past girlfriend, Mary Catherine Barnett, to make a tentative peace. Then, on a cold spring morning, he rides his horse up to the house of Rawlins. He waits for his friend to adjust his saddle and mount and then together they ride away from San Angelo "like young thieves in a glowing orchard...ten thousand worlds for the choosing."
Already in this first section, we see how McCarthy laces narrative structure, genre, character, and prose style together to give All the Pretty Horses its distinctive tempo and fluid style.
Each narrative section of All the Pretty Horses is organized thematically. The long first chapter of All the Pretty Horses can be divided into two parts - John Grady Cole emotionally distancing himself from his home in San Angelo, then John Grady Cole physically leaving it. In the first section he seems a confused sixteen year-old boy, at once cocky and awkward. In the second section, he is both reticent and deliberate - and very much a man
Genre manipulation is part of the reason the plot and prose of All the Pretty Horses seems at once familiar and singular. A classic 'Western' novel set on a ranch usually depends on a series of archetypes: overbearing father, servile mother, father-son conflict over the fate/running of the ranch, sibling rivalry, the complication of outside interests (usually a wealthy buyer or corrupt sheriff). Horses abandons all of these. John Grady is an only child. Grady's father is not only powerless, but helpless. John Grady's mother owns the ranch, his mother decides what happens to it, his mother prevents all intrafamily conflict when she casually dismisses his claim: "You're being ridiculous. You have to go to school." The central character of a Western novel being told he can't be a cowboy because he has to go to school? John Grady is a cowboy in search of a story, a character in search of a novel.
To set his main character free, McCarthy subtly shifts the focus from Grady's lack of control over the fate of the ranch to his assumption of control over his own fate. Subtle character development - free from obtrusive 'realizations' or intrusive narrator commentary - is one of McCarthy's strengths. Often, character is revealed not in an omniscient narrator's description or a character's explanation of a decision, but in the decision itself. In John Grady's case, for instance, his rite of passage is found not in his precocious desire to run the ranch, but rather in his decision to leave it. At first, he seems to be just waiting. First, he waits for his father to intercede:
Grady: What do you think I should do?
Father: I don't think there's much you can do.
Grady: Will you talk to her?
Father: I caint talk to her.
Grady: You could talk to her.
Then, he waits for someone to tell him what to do:
Rawlins: What did she say?
Grady: She didn't say nothing. What would she say? There aint nothing to say.
Rawlins: Well I dont know what you expect.
Grady: I don't expect nothin.
Desperate, he waits for his mother to change her mind:
What are you doing? she said
She stood there in her robe for a long time. Then she turned and went back down the hall and up the stairs again.
And finally, hopeless, he waits for divine intervention:
He watched [his mother's] play with great intensity. 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.
When it at last becomes clear that his mother has not only abdicated the ranch, but also given her heart to another man (a man in a suit and topcoat - the antithesis of a cowboy), he realizes there is nothing to wait for.
McCarthy's prose - both pacing and diction - adds to the feeling of limbo. In particular, we can focus on his use of dialogue, description, and imagery. The dialogue between father and son is so uncomfortable that the narrator interruptions at once provide relief from and prolongs the awkwardness.
I'll get your all's bread.
His father tucked his napkin into his shirt.
It aint me I was worried about, the boy said. Can I say that?
His father took up his knife and cut into the steak. Yeah, he said. You can say that.
McCarthy crafts his descriptive rhythms carefully to simulate the adrenaline of consciousness - burst of realization, waves of meditative nothingness. The latter take form in paragraph-length sentences, reminiscent of Faulkner. Though they might seem rambling or a purposeless novelty, they are the heart of both John Grady's psyche and McCarthy's skill. This passage from his last ride with his father is perhaps the best example:
So thin and frail, lost in his clothes. Looking over the country with those sunken eyes as if the world out there had been altered or made suspect by what he'd seen of it elsewhere. As if he might never see it right again. Or worse did see it right at last. See it as it had always been, would forever be. The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he'd been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway.
We can feel the desperation, the indeterminacy of John Grady's thoughts. The mix of syncopation and protraction only add to the flood of feelings - the fear, the hope, regret, the deflected rage. The little child in his mind's eye is talking at a breathless pace, lazily trying to hurl culpability on the boy in front of him when he runs out of air. But the adrenaline flows and then ebbs and finally, his mind calms. Possessed by clarity, John Grady severs his connections to San Angelo one by one - a last ride with his father, a visit to his ex-girlfriend, a 'I'm leaving with or without you' ultimatum to Rawlins. And finally on a cold spring morning, he rides from San Angelo with his best friend. McCarthy's language in the superb description that closes Section I uses imagery to emphasize that John Grady is not running away, or even running to - but simply leaving, riding onwards:
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...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.
There is no mention of San Angelo. There is no mention of a destination. But in the rich spaces between and synthesis of light and dark, burning 'electric' and night 'cold,' a 'tenantless' earth and 'ten thousand worlds' that await, he creates a physical and spiritual void. The act of leaving San Angelo has been emptied of meaning. The story begins now.