Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Border Trilogy (and how alcohol killed the video store)

Although I love the Stanmore Network video store, it is almost certainly doomed. Apparently the DA is in for it to become yet another bargain basement bottle shop.

But while it's still there, I waste the occasional Saturday afternoon browsing the thousand or so titles. Not too long ago I spotted a Matt Damon movie called All the Pretty Horses. Even though it was obviously about horses (at the time I knew zero about horses, which I figured was probably the right amount) I earmarked it as something I might be able to sit through on a rainy evening, because Damon is rarely in rubbish.

Before that rainy day arrived, I saw the paperback for sale at Marrickville's Addison Road markets, and recognising it was by The Road author Cormac McCarthy, I bought it for a dollar.

Starting it was like trying to get an old Ford going on a cold day. It took me three stuttering attempts before I got past the first, ponderous page. But like the old Ford, once you get it turned over, the V8 kicks in.

All the Pretty Horses is the first of the three stories that make up The Border Trilogy (the others being The Crossing and Cities of the Plain). I won’t go into too much detail about them except to say I liked the first one enough to buy the next two (brand new, in an omnibus), and that they share style, sentiment and characters.

They are all stories of loner horsemen drifting in and out of Mexico, sometimes at a bareback canter, sometimes loping broke and barefoot. They all seek something but don’t know what it is: either a lost way of life or a meaning to their own. The books are set just before and just after World War Two, but they often seem set in a timeless, almost mystical world.

The two protagonists, John Grady Cole (in the first and third books) and Billy Parham (in the second and third), are real men in the tough, no-nonsense Western way, but also show great compassion and are willing to sacrifice everything for their loved ones, and even sacrifice much for animals from their own horses to wild wolves.

As befitting a story that crosses cultures, the style has long passages of heavy cowboy philosophy and elements of Latin magical realism. But as soon as you think it might become too heavy, the action shifts to a tense chase, a bloody shoot-out or a desperate but believable act of inescapable violence.

Like the characters, the reader goes on a long but worthwhile journey.

Much of the dialogue is in Spanish, even when they’re not in Mexico, and while you can get the drift of what they’re saying, it helps to have a Spanish dictionary on hand. I downloaded SpanishDict for free and had it on my phone. Now I know all sorts of words in Spanish, particularly camino, cabello, hermano, muchacho.

So now I know a lot more about horses than I did before, though most of it is in Spanish.

(Random House)

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