All The Pretty Horses
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All the Pretty Horses (1992) is a novel by Cormac McCarthy and a winner of the National Book Award. The book follows a young man, John Grady Cole, and his best friend Lacey Rawlins as they run away to Mexico in the late 1940s. A bestseller and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, All the Pretty Horses is the first novel in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and helped increase the American novelist’s popularity and critical reputation.
McCarthy writes in an idiosyncratic style that does not contain many common punctuation marks. This guide refers to the 1993 Vintage Paperback edition.
In San Angelo, Texas in 1949, protagonist John Grady Cole’s grandfather dies, leaving the state of the family ranch in doubt. John Grady grew up around horses and feels it’s the only life worth living. His mother intends to sell the ranch and has been pursuing her career as an actress; his father has been absent since serving in the Pacific theater of World War II, where he was a prisoner of war.
John Grady’s father returns for the funeral and reconnects with his son, but he’s dying, and cannot do anything about the sale. John Grady cannot dissuade his mother, and the family lawyer reveals that his father made his divorce official, leaving him with no claim on the land. Meanwhile, John Grady goes through a breakup and spends nights camping out with his best friend Lacey Rawlins.
John Grady hitches a ride to San Antonio and watches his mother perform in a play; he is unmoved, but he learns that his mother isn’t using her married name. Rawlins agrees to run away to Mexico together, and they depart on horseback. As they ride south, they meet a young boy who goes by the alias Jimmy Blevins. Blevins rides a fine horse and has a unique pistol. He wants to join them, but John Grady and Rawlins are hesitant; they believe the horse is stolen and Blevins is trouble. He meets them again as they cross the border, and they agree he can ride with them, though Rawlins continues to dislike the idea. Blevins proves he’s a good shot by shooting a hole through Rawlins’s wallet.
As they ride south, Blevins reveals that he’s run away before and that his father is abusive. The boys buy alcohol; when a thunderstorm rolls in, Blevins, after drinking, insists that he’s destined to be struck by lightning, and he rides off to hide. John Grady and Rawlins find him the next morning, naked and without his horse. John Grady loans him a shirt, and they ride on.
They find the horse in Encantada. Rawlins wants to leave Blevins there, but they agree to help. Before they can make a plan, Blevins retrieves his horse, leading to a chase. Blevins agrees to lead the riders away while John Grady and Rawlins move through the wilderness. Rawlins is sure they haven’t seen the last of him.
The boys find work at La Purísima, a large ranch owned by Don Héctor. John Grady notices Don Héctor’s daughter, Alejandra. John Grady and Rawlins prove themselves by breaking in wild horses and training them to ride. Impressed, Don Héctor invites John Grady to help with a racehorse that he wants to breed. John Grady is permitted to ride the horse, and he begins surreptitiously meeting Alejandra while riding. Dueña Alfonsa, Alejandra’s grand aunt, warns John Grady to leave Alejandra alone. This only encourages Alejandra, who begins riding with John Grady at night. They soon begin a sexual relationship. Don Héctor invites John Grady to play pool and cryptically shares information about Dueña Alfonsa’s childhood relationship with Francisco Maduro. Alejandra leaves for Mexico City, and before John Grady can see her again, officers arrive at the ranch and arrest him and Rawlins. Rawlins reveals that Don Héctor declined to intervene for them.
The boys are taken to a local jail. Blevins is there as well, having killed at least two men while trying to retrieve his pistol. A captain questions John Grady and Rawlins, believing they are criminals. Blevins, Rawlins, and John Grady are loaded onto a pickup truck bound for Saltillo prison. Once they’re away from civilization, the captain and a guard lead Blevins into the wilderness and kill him while John Grady and Rawlins listen in shock. At Saltillo, the captain tells them that the guard was related to one of Blevins’s victims and paid the captain to do it. He tells them they must arrange to leave Saltillo or die there.
The boys are constantly attacked by other prisoners. A powerful prisoner, Emilio Pérez, offers to protect them in exchange for money that they don’t have. The next day Rawlins is attacked with a knife and badly hurt. He is led out of the prison, and John Grady must go back to Pérez to find out what happened. Pérez wants a bribe and believes that all Americans can access money. He insists that John Grady hurry, as the authorities are looking for a crime to pin on him.
John Grady uses the last of his money to buy a knife from an Indigenous prisoner. At lunch that day, a man with gang tattoos attacks him, and they fight viciously. When the man is about to slit John Grady’s throat, he stabs him in the heart and stumbles away. He’s rescued by Pérez’s man.
John Grady heals in a prison infirmary until the prison comandante gives him an envelope of money from Dueña Alfonsa and puts him and Rawlins on a bus. The two friends realize that Alejandra convinced Dueña Alfonsa to rescue them, indicating she agreed not to see John Grady in exchange. Rawlins knows that John Grady won’t be satisfied, and the two part ways as friends.
John Grady returns to La Purísima and confronts Dueña Alfonsa. She tells him the story of her upbringing: She was romantically attracted to Gustavo Madero (the real-life brother of President Francisco Madero). Her father kept her from him, as he was a revolutionary with dangerous ideas, which led to hatred between them. All of this is meant to show John Grady that she wants the best for Alejandra and understands John Grady’s position, even as she will be his enemy. John Grady rides off on one of the horses they trained. He reaches Alejandra, and they agree to meet in Zacatecas. She reveals that she told her father of their affair to undermine Dueña Alfonsa’s power over her and that Don Héctor almost killed John Grady before allowing him to be arrested. She was surprised to learn that her father’s love wasn’t unconditional. John Grady asks her to marry him and come to the states, but she says she cannot and returns home.
John Grady decides to get his horses back from the captain who impounded them. He buys a gun and takes the captain hostage. He retrieves Rawlins’s horse, and then rides with the captain to where his and Blevins’s horses are kept. A shootout ensues; John Grady is shot in the leg, and the captain dislocates his shoulder when Blevins’s horse panics. They leave, and John Grady evades their pursuers by rigging a gun to go off when a cigarette burns down. He cauterizes his wound with the heated barrel of his pistol, and then nearly kills the captain when the captain tries to shoot him with an unloaded rifle. The next night, John Grady is awoken by men who want to take the captain prisoner but let John Grady go.
John Grady returns to Texas and looks for the owner of Blevins’s horse to no avail. People claim ownership, but when John Grady testifies in court, the judge is moved by his story and gives him legal right to the horse. John Grady visits the judge that night seeking absolution for hurting Alejandra, killing the prisoner, and almost killing the captain. He returns to San Angelo and reunites briefly with Rawlins, who says that John Grady’s father has died and the Mexican woman who raised him is extremely ill. John Grady attends the funeral, then rides west into the unknown.
Content Warning: This guide references depictions of violence, death, and sexual violence and assault.