10 Feb 2006
While hunting antelope in the Texas desert by the Mexican border, Llewelyn Moss comes across the aftermath of a shootout between Mexican drug runners and their buyers. Amid the bullet-riddled vehicles and bodies, he finds a case containing several million dollars. His decision to take the money and run launches “No Country for Old Men”, Cormac McCarthy’s ninth novel, an existential literary thriller that undercuts the genre’s expectations by refusing to play along, and overlays it with ponderous meditations on good and evil, the drug trade and the inability of humans to escape their fate.
In the traditional thriller, Moss would be the hero: he’s blue-collar, living in a trailer with his wife while he works eight to four as a welder. We would cheer him on as he absconds with $2.4 million in untraceable drug cash. And he could have gotten away with it, but he returns in the middle of the night to bring water to a wounded man and encounters more drug runners, forcing him to high-tail it for the hills.
These opening chapters would be familiar to McCarthy’s readers, as he describes the landscape with a masterful eye for detail. In staccato phrases and sentences, he conveys the dry wind humming the phone wires, the wiregrass and sacahuista and “to the east the shimmering abscissa of the desert plains under a sky where raincurtains hung dark as soot all along the quadrant.”
This technique is effective in action scenes as well. Describing Moss’ flight across the desert from men in a truck, McCarthy writes: “He was still a hundred yards from the river and he didnt know what he’d find when he got there. A sheer rock gorge. The first long panes of light were standing through a gap in the mountains to the east and fanning over the country before him. The truck was ablaze with lights, roof rack and bumper spots. The engine kept racing away into a howl where the wheels left the ground.”
Moss escapes, but knows the dealers will trace him through his truck. He sends his wife away and hits the road with the guns and money, and what follows is a cat-and-mouse game played out among the dumpy hotels on the Tex-Mex border with the hit men sent to recover the money. One is calm and capable (he reminds me of Harvey Kietel’s character in “Pulp Fiction”). The other is nothing less than a monster, cold and pitiless, who favors killing using a pneumatic air gun used to punch a steel rod into the heads of cattle. It’s also effective against hotel desk clerks and police officers.
Chasing them is the old county sheriff whose laconic observations masks a growing fear at the violence the drug trade has spawned. “I used to say they were the same ones we’ve always had to deal with. Same ones my grandaddy had to deal with. Back then they was rustlin cattle. Now they’re runnin dope. But I don’t know as that’s true no more. I’m like you. I aint sure we’ve seen these people before. Their kind. I don’t know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they’d have to build a annex on to hell.”
But the story doesn’t play out along thriller lines. For a hero, Moss is not very bright. Because he was a sniper in Vietnam, he knows weaponry, capable of turning a shotgun into a vicious pocket weapon, but he’s unable sink completely into the violence necessary to survive. It’s McCarthy’s ironic running joke that Moss indirectly becomes responsible for most of the killings.
The sheriff charged with tracking him down, weighed with the awkward name Ed Tom Bell, doesn’t fare much better. Haunted by a battlefield incident in World War II, he tries to make up for it through his work, protecting the citizens of his county. We dip into his head frequently, particularly in italicized monologues between the chapters, where we learn about his feelings toward capitol punishment, the nature of evil, the rise of the drug trade and the deep abiding love for his wife.
Then there’s Chigurh, one of the hit men tracking Moss. He’s resolute, fearless and remorseless and pitiless in his killing. Like death, he even plays a game with some of his victims, flipping a coin to decide between life and death. He’s nothing less than a monster whose name suggested to me a mythological beast. As the story plays out, it becomes apparent that Chigurh is McCarthy’s true hero, who sticks to his twisted code, succeeding where Bell failed; while Moss, for all his pondering and thinking and waiting, doesn’t have a clue that the code exists.
“No Country for Old Men” is a book out of balance. The story of the stolen drug money peters out two-thirds of the way with a confrontation that’s puzzling as it is inevitable. The remainder of the book follows Sheriff Bell as he follows up on the case’s few remaining threads, judges the way he lived his life, and reaches a decision about his future. As a character study it’s brilliant; as a jeremiad on the decline of America, it’s silly. Evil men and indiscriminate violence has been a part of our world, as Bell, who fought in Europe during WWII, should have known that. McCarthy’s bleak vision of the future of this country seems forced and unnatural coming from Bell, a man of limited intelligence and vision. To update movie producer’s Sam Goldwyn’s prescription, if you want to send a message, use e-mail.