Monday, January 26, 2015

Aliens, Outcasts, and Border Crossers

Have I gotten your attention? Some of you may know that I am auditing a class in the Literature Dept. at the local university. I felt that I needed to brush up on reading critically for more comprehension. The name of the course is "Topics in Cultural Critique." I just love it, and I find that I really enjoy being challenged to read more deeply and not simply to tote up numbers on my annual score board.

We have already discussed and analyzed J. M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians," and have now moved on to our professor's favorite writer, Cormac McCarthy. Thank you Dr. Mendible! I would never have picked up "All the Pretty Horses," on my own. Even though it won the National Book Award, I'm sure that I saw it as just another unnecessarily dark story about people I wouldn't relate to, and a Western to boot. I was so wrong.

This novel was simply stunning. I read that it has an "elegiac rhythm," and I couldn't have described it better. McCarthy sweeps you up in that rhythm, almost as if you are moseying along on horseback with the two young men who live at the heart of the story, John Grady Cole and his friend Rawlins. The buddies complement each other. Quiet and easy going, they head out of San Angelo, Texas, on a quest to learn about themselves and to cross the boundaries that hold them back. Physically, that would be the Rio Grande. Psychologically, it will be so much more.

But as they ride into Mexico they find that another young man has been following them. To Rawlins, a little more skittish and superstitious than Cole, this third party feels like trouble. Blevins is immature and rash like the thirteen-year-old that he is. He appears to be riding a stolen horse. He is neither equipped nor prepared for the long journey ahead and when Cole agrees to let him tag along, the dynamic changes instantly. The atmosphere becomes foreboding.

Keeping in mind the subject of my class I saw immediately that McCarthy was writing so much more than a western. His love of the land and his descriptions of the people and the plains evoke a time long gone by and when he writes of the relationship between a man and his horse, the intuition and beauty of the animal, it is breathtaking to read. This is also a story of rash young love between people from different classes and cultural backgrounds. It is about breaking societal rules and paying a heavy price.

Yes, it is violent, but it is not gratuitously so. Prison is a grim, inhumane place where men are reduced to animal-like behavior. After all, we are animals in the end, the author seems to say. Cole and Rawlins may be unfairly incarcerated but, once in jail, they know what they have to do to stay alive. Cole will cross the boundary of his moral code, and though he has no choice, he will never be the same.

Upon finishing this book I just sat and stared into space wondering how did he do it? The only book by McCarthy that I had read in the past was "The Road." Now I have to go back and add the next two novels in this, his Border Trilogy, to my list of "must reads." Ten more days before we discuss this in class. I can hardly wait!

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