Shelf-Life

Books, reading & writing

Reading into the Sunset

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Another one bites the dust in the battle with my to-read pile, and in All the Pretty Horses there is plenty of dust to go round. I approached this book with some caution, owing in part to the proud endorsement on the front cover as ‘One of the greatest American novels of this and any time’ and in part to previous McCarthy experience telling me that the road ahead was likely to be darker than the inside of Neil Gaiman’s wardrobe.

On the second point I was wrong. While the story of two teenage Texans, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, travelling south to Mexico to find work as ranch-hands progresses over some rough and inhospitable terrain in the boys journey to adulthood, it does not delve into darkness in the way that the other McCarthy books I have read do. Rather, in keeping with the hard realist position of its protagonists, it meanders through these ugly vistas in a matter of fact way, recognising the hurt and horror that can pepper existence, but not dwelling on them, not shading out the light. And that light is one of the most potent images I have retained from this book. The image of Mexico and Texas invoked in my mind was of a parched, cracked land, rising red cliffs, all constantly being baked under a blast furnace sky. Even the night seems to glow with the stored heat of the day. You can feel the grime in the fingernails of every character and smell the sweat of the horses.

And yet, as vivid as the setting was, and as well draw as the characters are, the story didn’t grasp me in the way I hoped. I’m not sure if this was due to the quote on the front but I think it might have been. Perhaps its promise acted as a barrier between me and the book, causing me to look for what others had said was there rather than simply letting the words pull me into the page. Sometimes the classic can be a crutch. You read with a sense of expectation, always on the lookout for the gold, and in doing so you forget to look up, to let yourself escape into the literary landscape. But I also I wonder if the way I read the book held me back. I have been quite busy recently, so my progress was made in fits and starts: half an hour here, forty-five minutes there. This stop-start approach is in stark contrast to the style of the book. Split not into chapters but into five long parts, it feels like a book that you should make time for. It is a book for a long, hot summer night. Ideally, the reader would sit on the wooden porch of an old farmhouse. The paint on the house would be mixed with the dust of the plain and the roof would sag from the burden of generations. It would be an endless sunset, fiery and red. Dust would fall on the pages and a gentle sweat would trace the well-worked lines of the reader’s face. It is a book of the earth, to be read with dirt-caked hands.

 

Next up on the list I’m going back to Discworld. This time it’s Unseen Academicals: a book about football and much more besides. Due to my lateness in posting this entry I’m already past half-time on this latest fixture, so the final results should be with you shortly.

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