I’ LL NEVER FORGET THE MOMENT I received my advance review copy of Cormac McCarthy’s long-awaited novel No Country for Old Men (Knopf). It was all shiny and new, and the countdown clock on cormacmccarthy.com showed 109 days, 15 hours, 17 minutes, and 42.41.40 seconds to the publication date. (The Web site was created ten years ago by the Cormac McCarthy Society—and assuredly not by the author, who is famously indifferent to the palpitations of his admirers.)
I too felt the excitement. I thought about selling my copy on eBay for a C-note, maybe more. What I did instead was start reading it over a bowl of gumbo at an overrated Austin eatery. The gumbo grew cold because I couldn’t stop reading. But the real proof of an irresistible narrative hook occurred at my next stop, Nelda Wells Spears’s tax store, where I had gone to pay my property tax installment. Absorbed by the mounting carnage, I didn’t hear my number (eighty) and had to wait through an entire new cycle. So I was there for a while.
The style will pull in readers who have never heard of McCarthy. Pared down, it eschews the baroque, elaborate, lengthy sentences characteristic of his previous fiction. But it is no less compelling. As usual, he refuses to use quotation marks, a practice that drives some readers crazy. I for one love it. James Joyce started this, or maybe Gertrude Stein, but at any rate it’s a trademark of modernism, of which McCarthy is a sterling exemplar.
For die-hard McCarthy watchers, No Country for Old Men is a bit of a surprise. The word on the street was that McCarthy’s first post—Border Trilogy outing was going to be set in New Orleans and that the novel was ready to go. In any event, No Country is a straight-up genre novel of the crime-spree variety. The action is set almost entirely in the “running borderlands” of far West Texas, a region McCarthy knows well, having lived for many years in El Paso. The book begins with the voice of Ed Tom Bell, an old county sheriff: “I sent one boy to the gaschamber in Huntsville.” The sheriff, a decorated World War II veteran who is haunted by a morally ambiguous action on the battlefield, is a decent man trying to protect the people of his county. The job is getting harder and harder, and the reader quickly understands why.
Just two pages into the novel, we are introduced to one of Satan’s chief subalterns, Anton Chigurh, a stone-cold psychopath possessed of a philosophical bent. His most immediate antecedent is Judge Holden, the inscrutable frontier polymath and scalp hunter in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, who stands for chaos incarnate. Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit (from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”) is also relevant. The Misfit, another psychopath, is something of a hick theologian who’s hung up on Jesus. Chigurh’s philosophy doesn’t come from Christianity but from a source that’s not identified and is therefore sure to intrigue the intrepid McCarthy exegetes on the Internet.
There is a fair amount of killing in the book, beginning on page six, when Chigurh kills a deputy sheriff in an interesting way. I count 27 violent human deaths, plus a dog’s. This number may not be exact; sometimes a death is reported indirectly, a casual casualty. Of course, this is nothing compared with Blood Meridian, which in some sections averages 27 deaths per paragraph, not counting mules. The poor animals get shot; they fall off mountain paths; they die unnumbered and unmourned.
To reveal who Chigurh kills and why would be to violate the protocol of reviewing genre novels. The reader on the airplane does not want to know what happens; he wants to enjoy the thrill of the hunt. But I think it’s permissible to recount the one instance when Chigurh decides not to kill somebody. (Still, it could have gone the other way.) He flips a coin to determine the fate of a filling station proprietor. The quarter bears the date 1958, and so he tells the man whose life hangs on the outcome of heads or tails: “It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here.” Thus McCarthy precisely locates the action in time: 1980.
The third major character is Llewelyn Moss, a welder, good old boy, and former Vietnam sniper. (References to Vietnam abound.) Moss first appears very early in the novel. He is hunting antelope when he happens upon a “colossal goatf—k”: a miniature massacre and $2.4 million in unmarked currency, a drug deal gone bad. (At this point, I’m fairly certain, the first Hollywood agent called about the rights. The reader starts casting it by page twenty. If they pick Wilfred Brimley to play the old sheriff, I’m never going to the movies again.) Moss takes the money, an act that precipitates a prolonged and exciting chase.
McCarthy is a master of outdoors writing, and nobody captures Western spaces better. Here’s a typical moment in which landscape and character are charged with meaning: “The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself.” You could learn enough to pass a geology class just by looking up all the words for rocks and rocky escarpments when McCarthy gets going: “talus,” “scree,” “lava scree,” “barrial,” “bajada,” “caldera.”
One of the keys to understanding the novel is its title, which is taken from the first line of William Butler Yeats’s great poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” I know this because as an undergraduate I memorized the poem and wrote a paper on it. The poem proposes that the solace of art transcends the natural world of procreation, fecundity, and death: “The young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees/Those dying generations…” The first stanza stresses the constant life-death pulse of man’s biological destiny, while the second offers the promise of something that outlasts