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 the perishability of nature: the realm of art, symbolized by the splendors of the ancient city of Byzantium.
There are echoes of the Yeats poem in the novel. McCarthy’s country is both that of the old sheriff and a desert landscape with a history of violence stretching back into the unrecorded past. Instead of a city of great beauty (after all, we are talking about West Texas here), McCarthy’s example of man’s ability to make something imperishable in that harsh land is a stone water trough that Sheriff Bell remembers from his past. He marvels at the patience and labor it took to carve the trough, the years of faithful dedication to make something that would last “ten thousand years.” The house that once stood near where it lies, the people, the stone carver, are all long gone. The only thing that remains is the trough, and to Bell it signifies that for its artisan, “there was some sort of promise in his heart.”
Intermittently, in thirteen numbered monologues, we are immersed in the mind of Bell, who believes that the world, specifically America, is undergoing some kind of change for the worse. The part of the world he knows best, the very real county of Terrell, is being overrun by strange new forces hostile to everything sane and normal. Drugs and drug dealing and the violence they engender are the central and presumably insoluble problems underlying the book’s action.
Bell’s meditations, as it were, are theological. Pondering whether Satan exists, he decides that very possibly he does, and he is certain that the worship of mammon is the nation’s true religion.
The politics of the novel are right of center. Bell is anti-abortion, anti-drugs, and anti-kids who dye their hair green and put bones in their noses. He thinks the disintegration of civic polity begins when people stop saying “sir” and “ma’am,” when traditional, everyday manners cease to matter. Here is the way Bell responds to a reporter who asks him about the rising rate of crime in his county: “You finally get into the sort of breakdown in mercantile ethics that leaves people settin around out in the desert dead in their vehicles and by then it’s just too late.” I don’t want to make him sound like some grim, pitchfork-wielding “American Gothic” type. He’s not; he has a great sense of humor and is awfully hard on himself for past failings, but he’s worried about the direction things are headed.
More than any of McCarthy’s previous novels, this one is saturated with the news of the day, in this case, the late Carter era. There is a reference to the murder of a federal judge (that would be Judge John Wood, who was gunned down in San Antonio by movie star Woody Harrelson’s father). Bell reads a newspaper account that confirms his pessimism about the nation’s drift toward violence. The story, which seems to derive from one that was widely circulated in the national press, compares a questionnaire from the thirties concerning the conduct of children in the public schools with a similar one in recent times. The problems had shifted from chewing gum and running in the hall to murder and rape. Now, what’s interesting about this, from a political point of view, is the lengths to which liberals like Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose went, in the first of their 74 books about George W. Bush, to establish that this old story is an urban myth. Can an urban myth be true? Other myths are true, the claim is made by such towering intellects as Bill Moyers, if they’re classical and endorsed by Joseph Campbell. So why not an urban myth? Is there not some underlying truth to Bell’s (and therefore McCarthy’s) use of this story?
McCarthy’s body of work now consists of nine novels, one play, and one screenplay. The two masterpieces are Suttree (1979) and Blood Meridian (1985), with All the Pretty Horses (1992) and The Crossing (1994) probably competing for third place. Among his entire oeuvre, Blood Meridian stands alone. No less an arbiter of canonicity than Yale literary Brahmin Harold Bloom says so, and I have no reason to argue with him. Bloom rates Blood Meridian the only post–World War II work comparable to the best of Herman Melville and William Faulkner and ahead of anything by Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, or Philip Roth. No Country for Old Men will not alter these rankings, but as one Web site enthusiast puts it, it’s a “kickass read.”