American Mythologies: Essays on Contemporary Literature

By William Blazek; Michael K. Glenday | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
‘No Way Back Forever’: American Western
Myth in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy

Peter Messent

All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, the first two parts of Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy, were published in 1992 and 1994 respectively. They transformed McCarthy from a writer praised and appreciated by a minority to a cult author read by a mass audience. All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award for fiction and received the highest critical praise: ‘up there with Catch 22 and Rabbit at Rest; one of the great American postwar novels’.1The Crossing, too, became an immediate bestseller.

The most obvious feature of these two novels is their use of the conventions of the Western, though relocated in a Mexican landscape. There is every reason to believe that it is McCarthy’s reliance on this generic base that helped to stimulate the popular and critical success of the books. The Award citation for All the Pretty Horses refers to it as a novel that ‘rides on cold and exhilarating heights’ with ‘boy heroes who have the stature of true myth’. While Alan Cheuse speaks of the main protagonist, John Grady Cole, in terms of ‘one young Texan’s growth of soul’, and describes ‘his education as a breaker of horses and prodigal son, as a boy turned man by means of love and tested by imprisonment and the blade’. McCarthy’s representation of a ‘world of horses and guns … cowboys and Indians … loners and outcasts … vaqueros and caballeros’ seems to have touched some particular chord to which its audience has strongly responded.2

The Border Trilogy is not, however, the first time that McCarthy has adopted, and adapted, the Western form. Indeed, Dana Phillips judges Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (1985), which also ‘might be called a “Western”’, more ‘noteworthy’ than All the Pretty Horses. Phillips’ comment on the ‘very complicated’ nature of Blood Meridian (though, as the author also points out, ‘complication is not a quality often associated with the label Western3) might help to explain the greater

1 Morrison 4. All three novels, I would note, are centred on the white male voice.

2 See respectively, The Crossing dust-jacket quote; Cheuse 142; and Morrison 4.

3 Phillips 433, 434. This essay provides valuable analysis of McCarthy’s themes and
techniques.

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