Thursday, November 22, 2007

All the Pretty Horses

'McCarthy-lite,' Scott had warned me.

There's a case for the sell-out I'm sure, but in truth I found it to be an odd synthesis of McCarthy styles , where passages of notable verbosity are followed by others in which sparseness predominates, in places deserving of its reputation as modern American classic, yet with an awful lot of riding around going on between them − a feature I recall from the author's other would-be masterpiece, Blood Meridian.

As for the so-called romance at the heart of the story, I guess one man's mythic western is another's telenovela. I know which genre bell is clanging in the wind when McCarthy first describes the hacendero's daughter with her wide-brimmed black hat and matching Arabian horse. ("Real horse, real rider, real land and sky and yet a dream withal.")

Here's one of the occasional outbreaks of McCathy-heavy, including the kind of complex metaphor that defies any sort of accurate imaginative reconstruction:

"In the grey twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed on the waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an Autumn pool."

There are also one or two nameless things dotted around this verbal landscape too, surely McCarthy's most over-used adjective of opportunity. ("Ranchero music with its falsetto cries almost like an agony played out of a cheap radio somewhere in the nameless night.")

Having dipped into works representing both his Tennessee and Western periods, my preference remains for his two most recent novels The Road and No Country for Old Men. I think it is largely to do with the way he handles dialogue in them (less decoratively), and how the richness of his style has also evolved into something altogether less obstructive to the narrative impetus.

I honestly can't remember having salivated with such enthusiasm over the prospect of seeing an upcoming movie than I have over the Coen brother's apparently faithful take on No Country for Old Men.

On the other hand I can't say that I will seek out the DVD of Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of this novel (with Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz) with anything like the same degree of enthusiasm. Hollywood cast a pair of fairly grown-up actors to play a pair of ill-fitted lovers who in the text were aged 16 and 17 respectively. Yet 'mojado reverso' John Grady Cole never really convinces as a fugitive adolescent in Mexico; the character is often little more than a cipher for an old man's wisdom and a senescent code.

There are certainly a number of very cinematic scenes in this book. The dance at the grange is a favourite of mine, and then there's the Mexican jail. The story also has one of those extended confrontations about two thirds of the way through where one character lectures another at length about how the world really is. This is the Hacienda's old maid aunty, who dresses with a "chilling" elegance and explains to Cole how the 'Spaniards' tend to pursue truth and honour in all their forms but not their substance, and how there are no control groups in history to reveal what might have been.

When Cole realises that Alejandra is determined to respect her aunt's wishes and dump him he reflects that "all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all." Yet like the majority of McCarthy's girls, she never approximates a fully-realised person, and it is therefore very hard to imagine what might have been in their relationship had her decision been different.

The friendship between Cole and Rawlins places McCarthy firmly back in his comfort zone though, and this little gem of cowboy wisdom from Rawlins was a salient moment in their always enjoyable dialogue:

"Ever dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it. It was never the dumb thing."

No comments: