Thursday, November 29, 2007

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

--Sailing to Byzantium, Wm. Butler Yeats

I told Nathan I wouldn't see the Coen Brothers' film No Country for Old Men until I had read the book, which I did in a couple of days during my vacation to Cancun. It didn't take long at all, maybe two or three total hours, but a lot of that has to do with McCarthy's unique style. No Country contains a lot of paratactical sentences with very few quotation marks ("Chigurh did this and did this and did this and did this and did this"). The result is stark, much starker than The Road, which was comparatively intricate and detailed, and gives No Country a style which I have not seen successfully replicated in any novel. But also it makes the reading go very fast, sometimes to the point where I would read a page in thirty seconds and then realize that my brain had not had enough time to absorb what I had read, and I would have to go on and read it again.

In No Country for Old Men, we get the story of Llewellyn Moss, a rather ordinary young Texan with a wife named Carla Jean who happens to chance upon the result of a drug deal gone wrong while hunting in the desert. There are bodies everywhere, and abandoned vehicles, and a big bag of cocaine and a shitload of cash in a suitcase. Moss, in a rather nonplussed way, takes the money, but this sets of a chain of events in which Moss is hunted down by a cold and ruthless professional killer named Anton Chigurh who uses an air-powered steergun (it shoots out a tab which punctures a cow's skull and then pulls it back in lightning-quick) to kill his victims. Chigurh is the kind of villain that thiller writers try to create every time they write a thriller but rarely succeed: emotionless, austere, living both simultaneously outside of the law and in accordance to a strict interior moral code. The italicized monologues of aging Sheriff Bell, who relates his own horror at the deterioration of the county which he protects, are woven throughout.

In fact, No Country is a thriller through and through, but avoids the platitudes that so often come together to make good triumph over evil before the credits roll: the plucky hero cannot out-clever the professional killer; he doesn't play some cheap psychological trick (I'm looking at you, Vincent D'Onofrio) that goads the killer into violating his own methodicalness or let his guard down. The most important death and ostensibly the book's climax happens "off-screen;" what traditional thriller would be content with not allowing the reader/viewer to see that moment? And most importantly, there is no intimation that, even if Moss is able to beat Chigurh--which I will not say if he does or not--that this would mean anything, because even Chigurh, as fascinating and unique as he is, is simply a cog in a faceless, evil, all-consuming machine. The insinuation of the title is that even if you can prevent single crimes and tragedies, you cannot prevent humankind from succumbing more and more to its primeval urges; that is why Bell becomes so alienated and disillusioned. If The Road is a book about the way that humankind carries hope when hope makes no sense, No Country for Old Men is a book that screams, "Hope is lost," and in that way might even be more depressing.

I did like this book, but after The Road it was a little disappointing. I think I will read Blood Meridian, a more traditional Western.


Carlton Farmer said...

50 Books Project sure is feast or famine...I mean am I right folks?!

Carlton Farmer said...

***Begin being an ass***

I am fairly sure that you used nonplussed incorrectly. Only because I made the same mistake for years.

***End being an ass***

kathy said...

Blood Meridian was the first Cormack McCarthy I read. It was stunning. Altered my consciousness for weeks on end after I read it. No traditional western, though it's set in the old west. Enjoy.