Galloping Fiction

IT'S hard to recall a recent book that has been favored with a more astonishing parade of publicity than that preceding "All The Pretty Horses."

A profile in the New York Times favorably compared the author, legendary recluse Cormac McCarthy, to Faulkner and Joyce; Esquire ran a long excerpt from the new manuscript, promising the book would establish McCarthy as one of the finest writers in America; and his previous five novels are being re-released. After years of scraping by on critical devotion and word-of-mouth readership, McCarthy has come in from the wilderness.

The animal he is riding, however, is so much four-hooved hyperbole. "All The Pretty Horses," a conventional coming-of-age novel, boasts passages of intensely scenic writing. But as an addition to the grand procession of American classics, this is woefully meager literature.

McCarthy made his authorial reputation in the workshops of genre: Over the past 25 years, he has produced an impressive series of Western tales and Southern Gothics that, by sheer intensities of language and psychology, won the author a following.

At the same time, his Elizabethan fondness for the gory and grotesque kept the wider public at bay.

His previous book, "Blood Meridian" (1985), recounts the adventures of a teenage runaway who joins a hellish campaign of bounty hunters collecting scalps in the 1840's. "Child of God" (1973), based on the life of an actual serial killer from the woods of Tennessee, reads like a blood-drunk fairy tale.

"All The Pretty Horses," on the other hand, despite bleak moments, is told with a warm and lyric twang. The first installment of a projected "Border Trilogy," it introduces the young John Grady Cole, a protagonist (finally) who is neither dysfunctional nor psychopathic. But by tuning his voice in a sonorous, romantic key, McCarthy has also sacrificed the stark power of his previous work.

Opening with the funeral of the 16-year-old hero's grandfather and closing with a certified ride into the sunset, the novel takes John Grady and fellow Texan Lacey Rawlins into the same Mexican desert of "Blood Meridian." The novel pivots around John Grady's arrival at an isolated hacienda, where he falls in love with the ranch owner's beautiful daughter.

The commoner who woos the princess is a worn-out yarn, and the book only gathers momentum when John Grady and Lacey are thrown in prison at the behest of the outraged rancher.

After winning his own bloody war of liberation, John Grady settles scores with various enemies and makes a completely improbable escape the United States. McCarthy's characters are undeveloped, and he clearly prefers adrenaline-fueled encounters to the arcane dynamics of human interaction.

Critics have invariably praised his ornate literary style, but here the lyricism seems the mere afterglow of McCarthy's own romanticism. Describing John Grady's first entrance into "the tenantless night" of the wilderness, McCarthy writes that his young hero "rode not under but among" the stars, "loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing."

This is florid and false. McCarthy seems more interested in reworking adolescent adventure fantasies than in producing a template of actual experience.

One is struck by how many recent books come off as thinly disguised film scripts: efficiently told, visually dramatic, shallow. This is particularly true of "All The Pretty Horses," and in fact the third installment of McCarthy's "Border Trilogy" has existed for several years in screenplay form.

Draw near, and you will see that the author's current mount has been branded "Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture."

Far from marking the final triumph of a long-unheralded master, "All The Pretty Horses" simply signals another progression in the expanding influence of Hollywood.

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