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Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men

Literary Violence

A man hunting gazelle comes across a stack of dead Mexican drug runners and a pile of money. A cold-blooded bounty hunter chases the man across Texas, killing all who stand in his way. An aging sheriff hunts both of them. These elements could belong in any thriller about the early days of drug trafficking along the Texas-Mexico border. The difference? This thriller was written by Cormac McCarthy, so the scenes and prose are a bit different from what you'd read in any old thriller.

Cormac McCarthy is one of America's greatest living writers, and there are some who would argue his place in the pantheon of American writers. He's drawn comparisons to Faulker and Melville, two proven non-slouches. He writes in a stark, almost biblical language style that is his alone.

"A light wind had come up. He pushed back his hat and wiped his forehead with his bandana and put the bandana back in the hip pocket of his jeans. He looked across the caldera toward the low range of rock on the eastern perimeter. Nothin wounded goes uphill, he said. It just don't happen."

His career arc can be broken up into two distinct periods. The first, his Appalachian years, produced such works as The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, and the tragicomic wonder Suttree. Halfway through his career, McCarthy relocated to Texas, where he has produced The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) as well as what most consider to be his masterpiece, the haunting, blood-drenched, hyperviolent Blood Meridian.

No Country for Old Men is McCarthy's latest literary offering to the world. As I stated before, it takes place on the border between Texas and Mexico, in the early 1980s as the drug trafficking industry was really starting to take off. It's about as violent as a novel as you'll read. If literary violence were a ship on the ocean, McCarthy would be the vessel's owner and captain:

"He did close his eyes. He closed his eyes and he turned his head and raised one hand to fend away that which could not be fended away. Chigurh shot him in the face. Everything that [he] had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him. His mother's face, his First Communion, women he had known."

Llewelyn Moss, a working-class Texan, comes across a fortune in the desert while hunting antelope. He has no choice but to take the money though as he does he acknowledges the fact that his life will never again be his alone, not entirely.
Enter Anton Chigurh (pronounced sugar), a character that doles out death as calculatingly as death itself. He shows no mercy, he grants no forgiveness. And he's right behind Moss the whole way, sometimes ahead of him.

The money has come to Moss through random turns of events, but once he has it, his fate and the money's fate become one. This idea of fatality -- of one's future predesigned and preregistered in some annals of the universe, over which one has no say or control -- is one of the two main themes of the novel. Indeed, those who drift into Chigurh's path have done nothing wrong save be in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to Chigurh's view of the world, however, they are in exactly the right place for their lives to reach their terminus. It is the fate the universe had in mind for them from the beginning.

While Moss and Chigurh compose the brunt of the action and plot of the novel, the narrator of the tale also plays a role. Sheriff Bell frames the story for us. All the while he chases after Moss and Chigurh, and one can't help but feel bad for an aging lawman who can no longer keep up with this new kind of violence. His frequent monologues tell us what he thinks: that this is a new kind of man, a new kind of situation. A new time. His is the role of the old man drifting into the past. This is the other main theme of the story: The human race moves on. New men evolve. Old men watch as the world moves on, leaving them behind to wither and die.

No Country for Old Men is a thrilling read. It's not quite as complex and deep as some of his other novels but it's certainly worth reading, provided you can stomach the brutal imagery found on its pages.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
July 19, 2005
Knopf
Hardcover, $24.95
ISBN: 0-3754-06778
320 pages