Sunday, December 4, 2016

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it's made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who's layin there?
If you can get through the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men without giving up, you can probably get through the whole book. McCarthy pulls no punches, and he starts out with a description of a crime so graphically violent it could almost be a Monty Python sketch:

The deputy was flailing wildly and he'd begun to walk sideways over the floor in a circle, kicking the chair across the room. He kicked shut the door and wrapped the throwrug in a wad about them. He was gurgling and bleeding from the mouth. He was strangling on his own blood. Chigurh only hauled the harder. The nickleplated cuffs bit to the bone. The deputy's right carotid artery burst and a jet of blood shot across the room and hit the wall and ran down it. 
This level of detached, matter of fact violence continues throughout the book as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tries to pick up the pieces after a drug hand-off in the desert leaves several men dead and two million dollars missing. Llewellyn Moss, who happens to stumble on the crime scene and takes the money, is pursued by both Bell and Chigurh, a hit man sent by a drug king pin to retrieve the cash. McCarthy's prose is stripped down; it isn't flowery or ornate, but it zooms in on the minutiae of scenes so that small moments take up entire pages. He lists actions in long, run-on sentences that are almost hypnotic in their repetitiveness, but they draw you in and build a cinematic picture of every sequence. Sometimes it feels like you're reading the detailed stage directions for an incredibly violent and well thought-out play:
He opened the screen door and punched out the cylinder and walked in and shut the door behind him and stood listening. There was a light coming from the kitchen and he walked down the hallway with the flashlight in one hand and the shotgun in the other. When he got to the doorway he stopped and listened again. The light came from a bare bulb on the back porch. He went on into the kitchen.
A bare formica and chrome table in the center of the room with a box of cereal standing on it. The shadow of the kitchen window lying on the linoleum floor. He crossed the room and opened the refrigerator and looked in. He put the shotgun in the crook of his arm and took out a can of orange soda and opened it with his forefinger and stood drinking it, listening for anything that might follow the metallic click of the can. He drank and set the half-empty can on the counter and shut the refrigerator door and walked through the diningroom and into the livingroom and sat in an easy chair in the corner and looked out at the street. 
The sentences go on and on and draw you forward, punctuated by shorter fragments. McCarthy uses "then" and "and" over and over and over again so that these men's actions (violent or otherwise) become almost mechanized.

One of the more bizarre narrative tics that came out in this book was McCarthy's tendency to combine words together. It's seen in two of the quotes above with "diningroom," "livingroom," and "throwrug," but it happened constantly: "sockfeet" "windowglass, "bulletholes." This lent an almost child-like, e.e. cummings style to the prose, and it slowed me down each time it happened.

The monotony of violence and long drives is broken up with retrospective asides from the Sheriff, written years later. In them he reflects on his career, his relationship with his long suffering wife, and the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. These meandering asides give you a break from the constant, plodding violence of the rest of the book and give humanity to Bell that most of the other characters are not afforded. He considers himself a protector and an advocate, and the stark contrast between the brutality of the rest of the novel and Bell's ruminations make him seem that much more human. He goes through somewhat of an arc in those asides--at first he is fairly optimistic about the human condition, then he lapses into a darker phase, but he comes out on the other side by the end. The last few pages of the book provide some redemption after a long, dark slog through the worst that people have to offer:

It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.
I loved this ending. It's beautiful, but ambiguous enough to keep us from tying everything together in a neat little bow. We don't know which version of the world (or himself) Bell wakes up to, but we're left with an image of hope after an entire novel of despair.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I agree that the ending makes this novel.