My Back Pages: Perfume in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

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The past week-and-a-half have been draining for me: I caught the flu, my husband caught the flu from me, and our sweet cat M. was suddenly ill (but not with the flu). We’re all on the mend now, I’m happy to say.

“Escapism” and “Cormac McCarthy” aren’t words that you usually see in the same sentence, but McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses gave me something to focus on last week when I needed an emotional break from our various illnesses.

It’s actually less bleak than The Road or No Country for Old Men, but McCarthy’s writing is characteristically tough and lyrical at the same time. It requires (and rewards) the reader’s close attention.

This book even has a love story, which surprised me.

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The novel’s protagonist, young John Grady Cole, has moved from Texas to Mexico and is working on a large, prosperous cattle ranch. There, when he’s not taming wild horses and branding cattle, he falls in love with the ranch owner’s beautiful teenage daughter. McCarthy sketches out their brief romance in the most basic terms, yet it never seems clichéd; and his references to smell and scent underscore the elemental attraction between the two lovers.

(I’m using screen captures from a trailer of the 2000 film version; it’s probably dreadful, but Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz do “look” right, at least.)

One evening, John Grady dances with the girl, Alejandra, at a local gathering in an old adobe hall were “the air smell[s] of straw and sweat and a rich spice of colognes.” Then they take a stroll outdoors:

They walked along the road and there were other couples in the road and they passed and wished them a good evening. The air was cool and it smelled of earth and perfume and horses.

At the end of the evening,

He rode back alone with the smell of her perfume on his shirt.

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What perfume would a privileged young Mexican woman wear in 1949? I’m imagining something with jasmine and green notes.

As their romance progresses, Alejandra comes to visit John Grady in his quarters:

He stepped back and she came in past him all rustling of clothes and the rich parade of her hair and perfume.

There are a few more mentions of scent, but I’ll let you read the book for yourself someday. (Not when you’re sick with the flu, though, I hope.)

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3 thoughts on “My Back Pages: Perfume in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

  1. When McCarthy uses word perfume he may, of course, be referring to a bottled scent of some kind. But I was thinking that he was using the word as an adjective, to describe not her perfume, but HER perfume, the scent of Alejandra herself.

    Also, I think Damon and Cruz were too old to play the characters. Not that I wanted to see a teen romance per se, but the characters in the novel are younger and it gives the text (IMO) more resonance as each are discovering the intense feelings that are emerging in them for the first time in their lives.

    1. Pablo, I completely agree—we can take it either way, as an actual perfume that Alejandra is wearing, or as the scent of her skin and hair and herself. I like that ambiguity.

      It would have been nice to see a real 16-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl playing these parts! That doesn’t happen often in the movies, does it?

  2. I hope that all three of you are feeling better! The photo of Margaret curling up on top of your books is now my favorite image of her.

    You’re a mind reader, because I was recently thinking of re-reading “All the Pretty Horses.” The movie didn’t do justice to the novel, just as you suspected.

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