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Savage with Loveliness: What I Will Tell My Daughter About Reading Cormac McCarthy

Gavin Paul
Published in
18 min readNov 28, 2023


I’ll tell her to start with All the Pretty Horses. It’s not his earliest or latest or most profound but it’s probably my favorite of his twelve novels, though when it comes to picking favorites, as McCarthy said in his infamous 2007 interview with Oprah when asked if he believed in God, “It would depend on what day you ask me.” If she starts with All the Pretty Horses then just a few pages in she will come to this passage:

There was an old horseskull in the brush and he squatted and picked it up and turned it in his hands. Frail and brittle. Bleached paper white. He squatted in the long light holding it, the comicbook teeth loose in their sockets. The joints in the cranium like a ragged welding of the bone plates. The muted run of sand in the brainbox when he turned it.

What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.

I’ll tell her that if those two paragraphs don’t make her feel something — a gentle humming in her brain or behind her eyeballs, a flutter in her chest or gut—then she doesn’t have to read any more.

“Young cowboy holding horse skull, daguerreotype style.” Generated by Microsoft AI Image generator, November 18, 2023

I’ll tell her that passage from All the Pretty Horses, with young cowboy John Grady Cole ruminating on the sunbleached horse’s skull, recalls and transforms one of the primal scenes of literary consciousness: the image of Hamlet in the graveyard, holding the skull of Yorick. McCarthy, like all writers worth returning to, is a magpie, thieving shiny gems from his predecessors and crafting something both recognizable and new. I’ll tell her to look for glints of Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Melville, and Faulkner, to name a few.

If she sticks with it, a bit deeper into All the Pretty Horses three young cowboys get drunk and in McCarthy’s description of their vomiting she’ll get a sense of his explosive lyricism and the philosophical bent of his prose:

In the gray twilight those retchings…



Gavin Paul
Human Parts

English Professor. Author of "Conspiracy of One," a small book of short stories, and “The Coward," a collection of essays.