This is the first book in the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and introduces you to what seems like a very simple story with two friends deciding to ride down from Texas into Mexico. But it is not quite that simple and is a novel that covers some of the big subjects including coping with loss – not just of family and property but also of the way things used to be.
The main character John Grady Cole decides to mount his horse and ride off after his life unravels. His parents have been living separate lives for a while and the ranch his lives on is finally sold. There is nothing much to stay for so along with his friend Lacey Rawlins they decide to head off and ride into Mexico. They find that it is an adventure in itself getting a stretch of open country and they get a fair few turned heads.
The journey is not just an escape from the emptiness left by the ranch sale but also it is an escape into the past when cowboys rode horses and horses were the main way to get around. The slight problem here is that John Grady, the main character, is sixteen and it does stretch the credibility sometimes that not only is he mature enough for the trip but has the life experience to be able to draw on the skills he needs to survive.
But if you can park that concern then this is not only a requiem for the American past but for John Grady becomes a tale of love, friendship and honour. He loves the daughter of the ranch owner him and Rawlins eventually end up working for. But she cannot go with him because of her loyalty towards her family. He does everything to project not just his friend Rawlins but also a stranger Jimmy Blevins who they pick up on the way and he struggles with his code of morals after he lets Blevins get killed without a word of objection and then kills a man to save himself in prison.
Linking all the situations in the book are horses. Grady has a gift taming them, a need to be around them and it is the link to the world of the past. He is prepared to die trying to be reunited with his horse and it is the mode of transport that enables his escape from Mexico and the continuation of his journey.
What McCarthy manages to do is use a relatively simple story of awakening to danger and betrayal – after all the ranch owner is instrumental in putting Grady and Rawlins in jail to get them away from his daughter – and turn it into something more powerful about the betrayal of a way of life. When Grady gets back across the border inthe the US and ends up telling his tale to a judge it is only because of the senior age of the legal representative that the man is able to connect so well with Grady. The message of the tale is that there is a moral code, that although seeming to be out of date, is still something that can be followed and connects to the old American West where men were men, horses were fundamental and honour counted for a great.
Version read – Picador Paperback