Set in 1949 Texas, it follows John Grady Cole, a 16-year-old boy who is cut off from his family's generation-long ranch life that he only dreamed of. Unable to accept this, he sets off south to Mexico with his friend Lacey Rawlins and acquires a younger companion along the way to find work on the ranch. This idyllic and sometimes comic adventure leads in fact to a place where dreams are paid for in blood.
The novel not only brought McCarthy's hard-won critical acclaim and a wider audience after writing for almost 3 decades, but it also earned him two of the most prestigious literary awards, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993.
A sequel, The Crossing, was published in 1994.
This work provides examples of:
- Did Not Get the Girl: In the end, Alejandra decides she must keep her promise to her aunt to not see John Grady again.
- Dirty Cop: The police captain who captures Cole, Rawlins and Blevins, kills Blevins in cold blood, and throws Cole and Rawlins to a prison full of dangerous inmates.
- Hellhole Prison: The Mexican prison that John Grady and his friend are thrown into; they have to fend off against dangerous inmates who almost kill them.
- Laser-Guided Karma: After John Grady kidnaps the captain who imprisoned him and Rawlins and killed Blevins, he hands him over to a group of Mexican men, and it is implied that they will kill the captain, not unlike how the captain killed Blevins. In the movie, one of them is even explicitly shown to be a man who was also imprisoned by the captain and who had previously shared a cell with Cole.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The judge who grants John Grady legal possession of Blevins' horse after Blevins is killed, who also tells him later he is being too hard on himself for Blevins' death and that he must go on and live his life.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: John Grady and Alejandra. He's a poor American ranch hand, she's the daughter of the wealthy Mexican ranch owner that employs him.
- Translation Convention: Averted in the novel, as is common in the works of Cormac McCarthy. The novel features long passages of untranslated Spanish.
- Would Hurt a Child: The captain kills Jimmy Blevins, who is stated to be around 13 years old.