Note: Spellings of quotations are reproduced as they appear in the novel.
The action of All the Pretty Horses takes place in 1949 and 1950.
The novel opens at the funeral of John Grady Cole’s grandfather in the fall of 1949. John Grady, the protagonist, is sixteen years old and has lived all his life on his grandfather’s ranch outside San Angelo, Texas. After the funeral, John Grady rides out into the surrounding country. Subsequently he meets his father and they go to a café to talk. John Grady’s mother has left the family some time previously and lives in San Antonio, where she is pursuing an acting career.
John Grady’s father tells him that he and his ex-wife, John Grady’s mother, never got along: “She liked horses. I thought that was enough. That’s how dumb I was.” She left the family when John Grady was six months old, returning briefly when he was three before leaving for good. John Grady was brought up by Luisa, the ranch cook. John Grady’s father reflects that as ranchers and cowboys, their way of life is on the way to becoming extinct, and their future is uncertain. He continues to tell him that he once had enough money to buy the ranch but he chose not to. He gives John Grady the gift of a saddle.
Back at the house, John Grady talks with his estranged mother who has come to the funeral, and tries to persuade her to keep the ranch and lease it to him to run it. She refuses, pointing out that there is no income to be had from it. She tells him that she intends to sell the ranch. John Grady visits the family lawyer, Mr. Franklin to see if there is anything that he can do to stop the sale. Franklin tells John Grady that there is nothing he can do. He says that John Grady’s mother is the sole heir and prefers the lively social life she has in San Antonio to an isolated life on the ranch. He also tells him that his parents are not only separated, but officially divorced.
In the months that follow the funeral, his mother stays at the ranch. It is obvious that she is unhappy there, as she often leaves for prolonged stays in San Antonio. One night, John Grady hitches a ride to San Antonio and sees his mother perform in a play at the theatre. After the performance he waits in the lobby of the hotel where she is staying and sees her leave on the arm of a man. If she notices her son, she does not acknowledge him.
John Grady is finally convinced that he has to break his ties to the ranch and he decides to leave before it is sold. In March, he goes riding with his father for the last time. He also visits a past girlfriend, Mary Catherine Barnett, to say good-bye to her. He tells her that he is leaving, though he will not tell her where he is going. She suggests that they remain friends, but John Grady does not see the point. They part with a handshake.
In the early hours of one cold spring morning, he rides his horse up to the house of his friend Rawlins who has also decided to leave home. He waits for his friend to adjust his saddle and mount and then together they ride away from San Angelo heading towards Mexico,"like young thieves in a glowing orchard...ten thousand worlds for the choosing." On the road, they readily settle into a cowboy lifestyle, sleeping in the open and shooting rabbits to eat.
After being on the road for several days, John Grady and Rawlins become aware that someone is following them. They ride ahead, then dismount and lie in wait for their pursuer, who turns out to be a boy of about thirteen mounted on a magnificent horse. Rawlins does not believe the boy’s claims that he is sixteen and that the horse is his, or even that his name is Jimmy Blevins, as he says. Both John Grady and Rawlins have a bad feeling about the boy and Rawlins tells him not to follow them.
They ride on without him. But just as they are crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, Blevins catches up with them and insists on accompanying them, despite Rawlins’s objections. Once they are in Mexico, Rawlins believes that Blevins’s fine horse may have been stolen and may draw too much attention to them. He wants Blevins to trade the horse in for another less remarkable one. Blevins, who is generally incompetent and foolish, convinces them that everything will be fine and that he can be an asset to them because he can handle a gun remarkably well. He demonstrates perfect marksmanship by shooting a hole in Rawlins’s wallet when it is thrown in the air.
They ride into the town of Reforma and are invited to have dinner and stay the night by one of the townsmen. At dinner, Blevins accidentally falls from the bench and crashes to the floor. He is very embarassed and leaves the table. He refuses to come back into the house, even to sleep. He meets the others on the road next day and rejoins them.
After several days of riding, a lightning storm looms. Blevins is obsessed with the fear that he might get struck by lightning, as “It runs in the family.” He rides off at a gallop in an attempt to outride the storm. John Grady and Rawlins think that his behavior is very strange. They continue riding and eventually find Blevins sitting beside the road, almost naked. He has taken off all his clothes and dismounted from his horse because the clothes and horse tackle have metal parts that he believes will attract lightning. John Grady and Rawlins ride on, leaving Blevins behind. After a while, they hear Blevins’s horse behind them. Rawlins wants to ride on, but John Grady feels he cannot leave Blevins stranded without a horse. He goes back and gives him one of his spare shirts and helps him up onto his own horse.
After a few hours of riding, they come to a Mexican campsite. They accept food from some Mexican workers. The Mexicans think Blevins is John Grady and Rawlins’s slave, and they offer to buy him. Rawlins is more certain than ever that Blevins behavior and strange mannerisms will draw unwanted attention to them and will create problems for them.
The next day, they ride into a village called Encantada and see Blevins’s gun in a man’s back pocket. Blevins calls out, and it is all that Rawlins and John Grady can do to restrain him from putting them all in danger. Rawlins says that if the villagers have Blevins’s horse, they will now know that it belongs to him, making them all marked men. They hide Blevins among some trees and look around the village. They catch sight of Blevins’s horse looking out of the window of an abandoned house but keep riding as if nothing had happened.
When John Grady and Rawlins return to the trees where they left Blevins, he has vanished. Rawlins tells John Grady that they have reached a decisive point in their fortunes. They either leave Blevins behind now, or miss the chance forever. Rawlins believes that the sensible thing to do is to leave him behind. But John Grady says he cannot do this, any more than he would ever desert Rawlins, even though he knows that Blevins is responsible for putting himself and his companions in danger. When Blevins turns up, they tell him that they have found his horse, but Blevins is determined not to leave without his saddle also. Rawlins says that Blevins will get them all shot.
They decide to help Blevins get his horse back and that night, they return to the village. They find the house where the horse was stabled, but the horse is not there. Before the others can stop him, Blevins dismounts and slips into the house. Dogs begin to bark and lights come on. Suddenly, Blevins’s horse rushes past them, with Blevins atop, followed by gunfire from a posse of vengeful villagers. Blevins rides off alone, as his horse is faster. Rawlins and John Grady manage to get off the road to avoid their pursuers.
After a few days of riding, John Grady and Rawlins come across some cowboys (“vaqueros”) driving a herd of cattle. They also catch sight of a beautiful young girl riding a black Arabian horse. The cowboys salute her as she passes. John Grady watches her mesmerized.
John Grady and Rawlins have reached the ranch called the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion. The girl, it turns out, is Alejandra, daughter of the owner of the ranch, Don Hector Rocha y Villareal. John Grady and Rawlins meet the ranch manager, Armando, who hires them.
Analysis of Part I
There is an elegiac tone to the opening of the novel. Paradoxically, it feels less like a beginning than an ending. At the funeral of his rancher grandfather, John Grady Cole is portrayed as being “like a man come to the end of something.” It soon becomes clear that this “something” is the entire ranching way of life, together with the way of life of the cowboy and the Old West. As someone who has always worked as a cowboy, John Grady knows that nothing remains for him at his family home and that he must leave to seek his fortune elsewhere. John Grady’s father is clearly not well; the implication is that he too is dying, probably of lung cancer. His mother left long ago and lives in a town, and the ranch is to be sold.
John Grady’s decision to leave is driven by his urge to continue his traditional life as a cowboy. As modern American civilization steadily obliterates all traces of the Old West, John Grady and his friend Rawlins ride South into Mexico in an attempt to find a place that modern America has not yet colonized.
The country surrounding the Cole ranch is being prospected by oil scouts, making it clear that times have changed. The economy is no longer dependent on ranching and livestock but on oil.
As a cowboy of the Old West in the emerging oil economy, John Grady Cole is a man out of his time, alienated from society as it has become. His alienation extends to his own family. He seems to have little in common with his father. When he goes to visit his mother he pays to see the play in which she is appearing. He does not talk with her but watches her talk to “a woman in a chair” onstage in her acting role. As she passes him in the hotel lobby, she either does not recognize him or finds it inconvenient to acknowledge him. They are strangers to each other.
On riding away from their home, John Grady and Rawlins encounter modern obstacles, such as wire fences and highways that make horseback travel difficult. These obstacles emphasize that the world has changed since cowboys and their horses were free to roam the country unhindered.
The appearance of Jimmy Blevins is characterized by a literary device known as foreshadowing, in which the author gives clues that hint at future developments in the plot. First, there is a suggestion that he is dishonest: Rawlins does not believe Blevins’s claims that he is sixteen and that he owns the horse he is riding. Both Rawlins and John Grady have a bad feeling about him. Rawlins tells him, “You aint ridin with us … You’ll get us thowed in the jailhouse.” As it turns out, this is exactly what happens. The foreshadowing here creates an atmosphere of suspense, as the reader waits to see what kind of trouble Blevins will bring to John Grady and Rawlins.
The different attitudes that John Grady and Rawlins hold toward Blevins tell much about their character and moral stature. Rawlins is the practical Everyman. Neither a very good man nor a very bad one, he always has an eye to their best interests. He repeatedly counsels leaving Blevins behind on the grounds that he will bring disaster upon them. He is proven correct, in that Blevins does cause them trouble at every turn because of his unstable character. John Grady, on the other hand, is under no illusions as to Blevins’s ability to cause problems, but he will not leave him behind. John Grady does not do what is convenient; he does what he believes to be right. He has a strong internal moral code that, unlike Rawlins’s, is unaffected by their changing circumstances.
An important turning point in the novel comes with Rawlins’s grave warning to John Grady that they have arrived at a decisive moment when they can either leave Blevins behind, to their own selfish benefit, or look for him, and suffer. Rawlins is aware that they are confronting a moral choice. Being the pragmatist of the two, he counsels deserting the troublesome Blevins. For John Grady, however, there is no choice. He knows only moral absolutes, and can do only what he knows to be right. They must collect Blevins and accept their destiny.In terms of the theme of chaos theory (see Essays, no. 5), this is the point when a seemingly small shift (the decision about whether to seek out Blevins) has momentous consequences.
Thus far, John Grady and Rawlins’s journey has been relatively smooth. In fact, it has followed the common dream of the cowboy lifestyle: the men have slept under the stars, hunted animals for food, and surmounted some fairly minor dangers. The chapter ends with the apparent fulfillment of their dream of living as cowboys. The absence of the chaotic Blevins adds to the sense of the beginning of a harmonious life for them. But this is not to be. Already, the seeds of unrest have been sown with the appearance of Alejandra and John Grady’s fascination with her.