Before the Coen brothers got their hands on it there was just a book by Cormac McCarthy. Several people whose opinions I value had recommended McCarthy and so I avoided the film, opting instead to read the book first and save the film for another time.
No Country for Old Men tells the story of a drug exchange along the Texas/Mexico border that goes, it’s fair to say, a bit wrong. Llewelyn Moss blunders into the aftermath whilst out hunting and finds everyone dead or dying as well as copious amounts of cocaine and a satchel full of cash. What to do? A vet of the Vietnam war, a welder, and general ordinary guy, the money represents a chance at a life that he would otherwise not have and so Moss picks up the satchel and gets out of Dodge.
Meanwhile Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has a dead deputy and a truck load of dead drug dealers to investigate which leads him on to the trail of both Moss and Anton Chigurgh, a psychotic hitman tasked with regaining the money. The story follows the subsequent chase across the state and the musings of Ed Tom Bell, an the old lawman who finds himself dislocated from the world in which he is living and unable to cope with a manifestation of evil in a form he simply can’t comprehend (Anton).
I wasn’t sure I was going to like the book at first. McCarthy has opted for a third person limited view point for the majority of the novel with a first person monologue from Ed Tom Bell weaving through the story. He eschews the use of anything but the sparsest levels of punctuation making a new reader have to physically reset a great deal of their literary cues to distinguish between dialogue and thought. This book doesn’t want you to glide over it in a couple of hours, it wants you to take in every word and every idea because there is important stuff going on.
Once I settled into the style I found the sparse use of language powerful. McCarthy doesn’t inject every sentence with poetic fervour but has surgically sliced each word back to create a more immersive experience where he, as writer, disappears from view. However, when he does choose to flex his poetic muscles the lines he produces are wonderful. This, from early on in the book, is a good example of McCarthy’s style as a whole:
“A half hour he parked and walked out along the crest of a rise and stood looking over the country to the east and to the south. The moon up. A blue world. Visible shadows of clouds across the floodplain. Hurrying on the slopes. He sat in the scabrock with his boots crossed before him. No coyotes. Nothing. For a Mexican dopedealer. Yeah. Well. Everybody is somethin.”
The story itself is a classic Western template that on the face of it is riddled with cliches and doesn’t really have enough in it to sustain a novel. McCarthy deal with this by applying a classic technique of genre fiction and at traditional high points in the story his tale veers of in a completely different direction. I’m not sure if this is a conscious decision of the author and imposed on the characters or simply the result of rigidly following through the logic of each of his three protagonists given the story set up. I suspect the latter but McCarthy’s skill is such that I think only he could answer that.
No Country for Old Men is not an easy book, either stylistically or content wise. It is full of paradoxes: at one moment full of beautiful description, at others brutal violence drips blood from the page. McCarthy weaves three character stories into a simply rendered story that belies the complexity of the individual threads. It’s billed as a thriller but personally I think No Country for Old Men, like all good westerns, is as honest and gripping a morality play as I’ve read in recent times.
I urge you to read it.