In the Good Old Days

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In January 1993, I was roaming through the Hastings Books and Music store in Huntsville, TX trying to get the most bang for my Christmas gift money. My parents had gone old school and given me cold, hard cash. For $25.00 (a veritable fortune for a graduate student at that time), I could get ten CDs and five or six books if I was willing to put forth the effort. Heck, with the gift card and a trip to the dollar menu at Burger King, I felt like I was living the good life. Of course, this meant shuffling through a veritable smorgasbord of $0.99 CDs (Night Ranger Live in Japan—what a bargain!) and slogging through a remainder bin full of Pat Robertson’s autobiography Shout It from the Housetops (not a bargain at any price) and paperback copies of Jurassic Park.

I can’t remember everything I bought that day, but I do remember finding a hard back copy of McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Four Non-Blondes’ Bigger, Better, Faster, More cd. (Don’t be embarrassed if you need Wikipedia to “remember” who they are and what they sang.) It’s an unassuming cover (on the novel—the CD cover is crazy looking): block letters for the title, McCarthy’s name in white with a black background, and a horse’s mane. There’s no National Book Award stamp or photo of Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz on my copy, but the back cover is filled with “Advance Praise” from a who’s who of heavy hitters in American fiction like Peter Matthieson, Jim Harrison, and Shelby Foote. How is it, I wondered with typical graduate student egotism, that I’ve never heard of this guy? And if he’s so good, why is he in the remainder bin already?

Like many readers, All the Pretty Horses was my introduction to McCarthy. The novel opens with an almost clichéd modernist trope as the “candleflame and the image of the candleflame” catch in the glass. This is John Grady’s divided self. Like Robert Frost’s narrator in “After Apple Picking” when he looks through a “pane of glass” he skimmed from the “drinking trough” or James Joyce’s “cracked looking-glass of a servant” in Ulysses, McCarthy opens with a character doubled. But, there is an innocence here when Cole “pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax.” That was the hook for me—Cole witnesses his grandfather’s death and with his passing, an era ends. He listens to the train and later thinks of the Comanche. It’s nostalgic, sad, and mythical in a Hank Williams kind of way. It’s also filled with innocence. This is a boy playing in melted wax at his grandfather’s funeral.

Herein lies, in many ways, McCarthy’s contribution to the western novel. The sun rises and sets, grass grows, and birds fly without regard to the people who create stories, but those things can’t be removed from the stories. Countries differ, not simply because there are different people, but because there is a different climate, hence, a different history. Simply put, people in West Texas are different from people living on the Gulf Coast are different from people in Mexico.

Whether John Grady Cole understands those differences or not might be up for debate. Certainly, when I teach the novel my students are often split with regard to his growth as a character. Does Cole learn a lesson? Does he remain steadfast in his desire for a country full of old waddies running cattle? Is he, we might ask, older and wiser or just older? There is an ambiguity about the ending that resists an easy read. What does seem clear, though, is the overwhelming sense of nostalgia McCarthy’s characters exhibit.

The sometimes apoplectic reaction to the presidential election this last week has put me in a contemplative mood regarding the role of literature and education. We are daily bombarded with information but we seem less and less capable of putting things in perspective. We long for days gone by, or simpler times, or the good old days, forgetting that the good old days where always a memory but never a reality. They were always back in the day.

Part of the power of literature, beyond the artistic beauty and its reminder of our humanity, is its ability to remind us that our concerns are universal. “Gilgamesh,” “Genesis,” Hamlet–at the end of the day, these “ancient” works are about our relationship to the mysteries of life and our human, imperfect response. Literature shows us how incapable humanity is at filling the void, but literature also shows us the value of endurance. Our humanity isn’t defined by our ability to be right or to solve problems: our humanity is in the attempt. That’s the job of great works. Simply put: literature shows us that we are all human but one size doesn’t fit all. Life is impractical, inefficient, and messy.

Students will sometimes ask why a work is “great literature.” My answer is pretty simple: literature, like Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and McCarthy’s novel, are capable of capturing the historical moment in which it is produced and capable of transcending that moment. It’s important, it’s applicable in the parlance of our business oriented culture, because it encourages us to value failure and endurance.

If you travel to San Angelo and stop to eat at Fuentes restaurant downtown, you will see on the wall a photograph of Matt Damon and Henry Thomas. They traveled out this way prior to Billy Bob Thornton’s filming of the novel. Unfortunately, they decided not to film here, choosing Las Vegas, New Mexico and Floresville, TX.

Like the novel, the movie captures a landscape that seems pre-industrial and this pastoral idea feeds the mythos of the west. Cowboys on the open range, sitting by a fire, going to bed tired after an honest day’s work: this is what we want. But McCarthy reminds us this is a place that no longer exists. The wide open spaces are still around, McCarthy seems to say, but our access to them is impacted by more than barbed wire fencing. Metaphorically and symbolically, we are hemmed in by our larger cultural and national relationships with the landscape. But, McCarthy reminds us, we have to keep riding.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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