Cormac McCarthy on Scorn for Anything Not Learned First Hand

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The cover of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses.

The cover of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

My wife and I have been reading Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses – mostly when we’re in the car. Carrie’s driving and I am reading it out loud. It has all these great long sentences (that no English teacher would have left unmarked) that aren’t all that easy to read out loud.

There are lots of ands. Almost no commas, no quote marks, nearly no apostrophes. Some misplaced modifiers too. Lots of joined words, too – like “hitchingrail” instead of “hitching rail.” Overall, and I am not sure exactly why or how, it really works. It sounds like poetry a lot of the time… but it’s also kind of sparse and at the same time drawn out, attenuated…

There’s a lot to like in this book, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers (and one of the many great books initially recommended to me by my mother), but, during this read-through, this passage has stuck in my head. It takes place in late 1940s. Protagonist John Grady and his friend and fellow traveler Lacey Rawlins have ridden their horses from Texas into Mexico:

After dinner they sat at the table and smoked and drank coffee and the vaqueros asked them many questions about America and all the questions were about horses and cattle and none about them. Some had friends or relatives who had been there but to most the country to the north was little more than a rumor. A thing for which there seemed no accounting. Someone brought a coal-oil lamp to the table and lit it and shortly thereafter the generator shut down and the lightbulbs hanging by their cords from the ceiling dimmed to a thin orange wire and winked out. They listened with great attention as John Grady answered their questions and they nodded solemnly and they were careful of their demeanor that they not be thought to have opinions on what they heard for like most men skilled at their work they were scornful of any least suggestion of knowing anything not learned at first hand. (p. 95-96)

I don’t know that I am a man skilled at my work (I feel like a person who dabbles in art, writing, politics, gardening, etc. and doesn’t quite really focus enough to nail any of these fully), but I do relate with the sense that it’s important to learn things first hand.

When I am writing about something (transportation projects for my current work as a writer for Streetsblog L.A., but also river sites for my book and my L.A. Creek Freak writing) I pretty much need to go to the site and observe. I sit a while. Ride around. Walk around, perhaps count things like the number of parking spaces to confirm whether they’re the same amount that the agency has listed. (They usually aren’t.) I try to observe who is doing what where – how actual people are using a space. I miss things, but I don’t like to report on places I haven’t visited first hand. Sometimes I think it limits me a bit… I should be able to take peoples’ word for things. At least a bit more often than I do.

Here’s another passage that my wife and I liked. This is just as Grady and Rawlins depart home, during pre-dawn darkness:

They rode out along the fenceline and across the open pastureland. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The lights fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing. (p.30)

And an image that I remember my mom telling me she liked. Grady and Rawlins camped out and “fed the fire out of the ruins of an old fence”:

They watched the fire. The wire that had burned out of the fenceposts lay in garbled shapes about the grounds and coils of it stood in the fire and coils of it pulsed red hot deep in the coals. (p. 138)

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