Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

McCarthy, Cormac (2005), No Country for Old Men, Picador
ISBN 0-330-44030-6

This is just it: a novelist who has produced several incontestable masterpieces, who is generally regarded as being one of the foremost artists of his craft and his generation, that novelist is bound to be subjected to a less forgiving critical glare than the overall mediocre writer. Cormac McCarthy is one of the former, a writer regularly named in discussions of possible Nobel Prize candidates, a writer who, in Blood Meridian and Suttree, has produced two of the best novels of his age. After his last major achievement, the “Border” trilogy, which ended with the beautifully elegiac Cities of the Plain (1998), he waited for almost a decade before publishing his ninth novel, No Country for Old Men, which is so dull and mediocre that it almost seems a different writer’s pale imitation of McCarthy’s celebrated style and tone. Less like an inspired and inspiring work of art, this genre hybrid is more of a routine exercise in a style that McCarthy can pull off by now with comparable ease. As in the somewhat operatic late novels of other old novelists like Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Günter Grass or John Updike, this novel leaves us sure of the author’s competence, his basic ability to fuse knowledge and insight into a reasonably original prose artifact; as in those cases, we leave the book largely unmoved, witnesses to an author’s languid self-examination. But however little I liked books like Exit Ghost or Indignation, they still shone with stylistic polish, written in the dazzling prose that these writers have become famous for. There’s precious little of that in No Country for Old Men. On the contrary, the novel makes painfully clear on every single page why McCarthy’s great novels are as great as they are: because everything fits perfectly. In his books, the writing doesn’t enhance the structure or characters or the plot, it is inextricably connected to these elements, and in his ninth novel we realize almost instantly that as soon as something is out of place in McCarthy’s wondrous literary architecture, the whole building collapses into a malformed heap. This is not to say that No Country for Old Men is a bad novel. It’s not. For most other writers, it would certainly be regarded as a great success. The finicky complexities of structure and ideas, the ambiguous moral landscape, and the nimble way he fuses several genres and modes of writing would be admirable in many other writers, but his name on the cover of the book mostly highlights the flaws of his (so far) penultimate novel. As a reader, I can’t help but see these flaws on its every page, so it’s hard for me to recommend it. Nevertheless, whatever its deficiencies, No Country for Old Men is, at the very least, an entertaining romp through a modern day western, part reality, part allegory. If you enjoy humorous, well-paced and atmospheric crime novels, you’re likely to enjoy it. Just try to forget that this is the same man who brought us Blood Meridian and Suttree.

No Country for Old Men is a crime novel/western hybrid, set in modern day Texas. It consists of three different kinds of short chapters. The first kind of chapter (and the first chapter of the book) is reserved for Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who is the most dominant of the book’s three protagonists. His chapters are printed in italics and are narrated by Bell himself, in the first person. Thus, the very first sentence of the novel we hear is one spoken by Bell: “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville” and the last sentence is also his: “And then I woke up.” One would assume that he is, in fact, the narrator of the story, but he’s not, or anyway not in any obvious way. He does, however, frame the story in several ways. His chapters (or section if you like) are both part of the story and outside of it. As a man involved in the action, we can follow him through the story and learn more about what happens. On the other hand, as a grizzled old sheriff, with decades of experience at this game, he infuses his sections with two kinds of outside commentary. One is his memory of his years and years of work. Through Bell’s voice, we see the unfolding events in a historical context, and we quickly get a good idea of how the cultural landscape is connected to the violent and desperate individuals playing a game of cat and mouse in it. McCarthy’s sense of history is always very strong in his prose, but this time it’s more heavy-handed as we listen to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell ramble about the past and the present. Although ‘ramble’ may be too negative: the choice of words, the phrasing, syntax, everything in Bell’s chapters is endowed with the cadences of the wise old storyteller. McCarthy places accentual deviations from grammatical rules judiciously. As with the other factors, too, this is done in as heavy-handed a manner as possible. This is not oral speech taken down, thus lacking the refinements of writing, despite the dropped ‘g’s in gerunds and participles. Instead it is speech carefully crafted to resemble oral speech, most obviously by the fact that the apostrophe in words like ‘won’t’ and ‘didn’t’ is usually left out. Now, this deviation cannot be heard, it’s nothing but a signal to the reader: listen up, this is traditional storytelling. I go on about this at length because for whatever reason, McCarthy, in this late period of his work, starts to rely on crutches overmuch. The dropped apostrophes are one aspect. Many more follow in the pages to come (The Road, only marginally better than No Country for Old Men, is similarly full of them). McCarthy needs these sections to be clearly identifiable as oral, however, since he expects the reader to extend the local historical tradition that Bell outlines and read the whole book in connection with a local literary tradition, the tale told in the evening at the campfire or on the back porch.

As I pointed out in this review, the oral storyteller often has a moral and epistemological authority, and it is this authority that the novel wants, no, needs to invoke here. As the novel progresses, so do Sheriff Bell’s culturally and historically based pessimistic murmurings. This is the other kind of outside commentary, and it’s worth distinguishing it from the first one; in part certainly because one is backwards oriented (assessing the past, establishing a historical landscape wherein the novel’s events can be situated) whereas the other is looking forward, in the sense that Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium” is, which lent McCarthy’s novel its title. Both poem and novel end on a vision, but while Yeats’ poem ends on a phantasmagorical vision of “the holy city of Byzantium”, McCarthy’s ends on a symbol of the past that has slipped away, a past that has been replaced by shootouts and drug deals in the desert. In this sense, the novel isn’t, as I claimed earlier, a crime novel/western hybrid. It’s a Western that’s been taken over by the mechanized, brutal reality of our time. The basic elements, given enough abstraction, are still there, the landscape is still the same, and the Texan drawl of Sheriff Bell that frames the whole thing is also still there. Within all that, however, a new story takes place, and we are to feel the loss that it represents to the world Bell used to know. Now, the novel’s grasp of reality and of a dependable moral compass is a bit tenuous since Bell’s sections are so clearly marked as objects. There is no inherent support for these sections within the novel; on the contrary, the very first sentence of the novel could be said to undermine Bell’s sections completely, since according to Jim Willett, the director of the Texas Prison Museum, the state of Texas has never executed anyone in a gas chamber. This inaccuracy, placed prominently at the very beginning of the story, is an important sign post if we look for instructions as to how to read Sheriff Bell’s chapters. The other two kinds of chapters are written from the (third person) perspective of two other central characters, most frequently from that of Llewelyn Moss, Vietnam veteran, and professional welder. It is he who kicks off the novel’s plot when he comes across what’s left of a shootout in the desert: three vehicles, filled with dead (and almost dead) men, as well as several million dollars in cash. After a brief deliberation, he decides to take the money, since, after all, no-one appears to be still alive to lay claim to this particular pot of gold. This is where things get a bit dicey. The money has owners, who send killers in to get it, but more dangerous is a freelance killer, who’s also the third protagonist. Of these three characters, Moss is the most accessible one, he’s an everyman, caught in the crosshairs of bad luck, trying to first save the money and later on just his life, from the relentless pursuit of the professionals in hot pursuit of him.

Moss is unlucky, but he’s also remarkably stupid, making a few crucial mistakes that lead to his having to flee across the Mexican border and back. We become so invested in his story (although he’s only a cardboard character, really) that after a while, we may consider him the protagonist, but the last third of the novel quickly disabuses us of such illusions, if we ever held them. In fact, as it turns out, Moss is merely the human interest meat in an allegory sandwich, although he and his chapters do take up more space within the novel than the other two. Of the two, I already discussed Sheriff Bell, a stand-in for the history of the landscape, for the oral storyteller and an ambiguous moral authority. The other one is the aforementioned freelance killer, Anton Chigurh (which adventurous surname is pronounced similar to ‘sugar’). Chigurh’s chapters take up the least amount of space and yet his importance in the overall structure of the novel is equal to that of Bell. Where Bell provides a framework and perspective, Chigurh is the evil ghost in the machine. He is a cold-hearted murderer, but like Bell, he likes order, and his killings can be seen as a way to restore order. Like Bell, he has a rigid moral and ethical code that governs his actions. In many ways, he is the modern day counterpart of McCarthy’s earlier creation Judge Holden, the main villain of Blood Meridian and one of the best and most harrowing villains in recent literary history. To readers of that earlier book, it’s probably clear that Holden is representative of a more archaic, ancient evil. He isn’t merely a wrongdoer or a bad person, he’s evil, in the full sense of that word. The same, almost otherworldly, impression is left by Anton Chigurh, but while Judge Holden, a historical figure, was anchored to his time and place, this isn’t quite true for Chigurh, except in one sense: technology. McCarthy’s use of weapons in No Country for Old Men is close to fetish, the way he caresses names and processes, the way he offers to us a precise and accurate idea of every weapon used, and of the uses of these weapons. In many ways, I believe one could read Chigurh and the use of violence and weapons as a warped, disjointed, patriarchal take on theories like Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg. The book never qualifies this take on technology, it doesn’t offer a position on the progress of modernity outside of the flawed stances of its protagonists. But the fact that the sections that seem most normative are undercut by Chigurh and by the author himself leaves the novel as a whole in a state of uncertainty. McCarthy, as in his good and best books, reaches towards myth and tradition, but the novel itself collapses at the end. There is unfinished business in No Country for Old Men but McCarthy is no longer able or willing to take care of it. It is this twilight of two modern narratives that is the most brilliant thing about McCarthy’s overall unsatisfactory novel. But too much of this is obnvious, too much of this is presented in broad daylight, as an empty gesture to an empty stage. What’s left is murder and suspense, and a taciturn narrative about violence and modernity that could have been worse. It could have been better though.


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One thought on “Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

  1. Thanks for the article. I tend to regard Country superior to Road, if only for writing style, but Cormac is my favorite and Suttree his masterpiece with Blood running a close second. I know Cormac recently wrote screenplay for Sunset Limited. Any idea if he’s writing another book?

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