It is the 1940s, and a teenager, John Grady, convinces his friend Rawlins to ride away with him from their Texas homes in search of adventure in Mexico. They end up at a ranch, capturing and breaking wild horses, and John Grady falls in love with the rancher's daughter. Mexican justice is almost as capricious as a Kenyan policeman, and the two are unexpectedly imprisoned, somewhat randomly, and have to fight for days with the other inmates. On their release, Rawlins goes back home, and the scarred John Grady returns to try and win the rancher's daughter.
The heart of this book, as in any good Western, is the relationship between the two boys, which is sweet, loving and very funny. I am now trying energetically to work “crazy as a shit-house rat” into my everyday conversation. Here is an extract from a section where Rawlins hasn't seen John Grady for a while:
Bud is that you?You may gather from the lack of conversation markers that this is a literary book, and you'd be right. The evocation of the West is gorgeous:
Sum buck, he said. Sum buck. He walked around him to get him in the light and he looked at him as if he were something rare.
He pointed his horse at the polestar and rode on and they rode the round moon up out of the east and coyotes yammered and answered back all across the plain to the south from which they'd come.
(A long literary sentences is however a difficult thing, and can go badly wrong. This one, for example, makes me want to smack someone in the mouth:
The barn was built on the english style and it was sheathed with milled one by fours and painted white and it had a cupola and a weathervane on top of the cupola.Oh shut up.)
This was a very action-packed book, and the action was so fast paced and brutal that if there has not been a movie made of it I will eat my Stetson. However, I found the book to be really rather sad. This is in part because any novel about growing up is always melancholy, because it always implies a loss, of innocence, or of childhood. In part, also, the book seemed to be mourning a certain kind of lost masculinity. Personally, I don't think there's much to mourn there, masculinity and feminity both seeming to me to be primarily a kind of trap – but this book is all about the romance of fulfilling your gender role. Mostly however the sadness comes from the fact that the world of the West is so clearly dying out over the period the book covers.
The car, and modernity, are everywhere in the book. Thus, when John Grady and Rawlins first set out:
The store had nothing in the way of feed. They bought a box of dried oatmeal and paid their bill and went out. John Grady cut the paper drum in two with his knife and they poured the oatmeal into a couple of hubcaps and sat on the picnic table and smoked while the horses ate.And at the end of the book:
He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.