scottharrison, April 01, 2014
No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men is set in the dusty plateaus of west Texas, where the main protagonist Llewellyn Moss happens upon a Mexican Drug deal gone wrong. He finds a brief case with northward of two million inside and makes the rash decision to take the money. Then the inherently moral Ed Tom Bell and psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh struggle to determine the fate of Llewellyn. McCarthy shapes this struggle with his blunt writing style and pessimistic tone, all the while illustrating that no matter how hard we try, evil will always exist in society.
This novel is set sometime in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, the date is not specifically mentioned, but it can be inferred by the setting. McCarthy describes the landscape in detail “to the west the baked terracotta terrain of the running borderlands.” However, he does not describe the urban environments in much detail. This gives the reader the perception that the time period is much earlier than is really is.
McCarthy utilizes a very blunt but effective writing style throughout this novel. Scenes that other authors pour details and emotion into, McCarthy would approach with a simplistic style. For example “He looked at Chigurh. He looked at the new day paling all about. Chigurh shot him through the head and then stood watching.” This line exemplifies with graphic detail how blunt McCarthy can be. The novel is also set up in a unique structural manner. There are thirteen chapters, but before each chapter there is a preface by Ed Tom Bell. Generally this preface sheds light on some aspect of Bell’s life that he regrets or provides a glimpse at the reasons Bell feels society is failing. For example “Once you quit hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, the rest is soon to follow.”(302), this is a good representation of the pessimistic tone present throughout the novel.
The plot of No Country for Old Men is fairly straight forward. Llewellyn Moss, an ex-Vietnam sniper, stumbles upon a Mexican Drug deal, while hunting antelope on the plateaus of west Texas. Everybody is dead or near death; Llewellyn finds the last man standing holed up underneath a tree about a mile away. The man was shot through the side and had long since been dead, with him a briefcase with around two million inside, “there was a heavy leather document case standing upright alongside the dead man’s knee and Moss absolutely knew what was in the case and he was scared in a way he didn't even understand.”(17). What Moss didn't understand was that his next decision was the deciding factor in his life. The rest of the plot plays through Moss’s choice to take the money. He is ruthlessly hunted by both the cartel and Chigurh. Moss severely underestimates the people after him and pays for it dearly.
McCarthy had two main goals in mind when writing this novel; the first is that although times have changed, the west is still the west. Violence and illegal activity will always be ingrained in the culture. The second is that as hard as people might try, true evil will exist as long as humanity does. In some ways these two ideas are similar, but they can be looked at differently. The “Old West” is characterized by gunfights, gold mining and adventure. People in our time look back on the “Old West” with nostalgia, however, the reality is that people in that time did not feel the same way we do. It’s likely they felt their lives were hard and dangerous. Our modern west is really not that different. Gold mining has been replaced by drug trafficking and gunfights with murder. In one hundred years people will probably look back on our west with the same nostalgia we have now. McCarthy hammers this idea home in all respects with this novel; there are drug deals, murders and even the rare modern day gunfight. All the while Moss is on the adventure of a life time akin to the outlaws of the past. The second main point is addressed solely by the character of Anton Chigurh. He’s as cold a psychopathic killer as literature has seen and in this novel seemingly invincible. Chigurh is shot multiple times and hit by a car but miraculously survives. The reader wants him to die and fail in his quest during the entire novel, but he never does. He represents the way that evil can never truly be destroyed. You can lock up as many criminals as possible, but new ones will rise to take their place. This main idea along with Bell’s prefaces develops the pessimistic tone of the novel. Chigurh is the very definition of death and destruction, so whenever he’s present there’s a feeling of despair. This coupled with the overly negative connotation of all Bell’s prefaces forms the pessimistic tone.
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is a modern day twist on the traditional western novel. It covers some of the major problems with society today, such as drug use and violence. The novel teaches valuable lessons on the existence of violence in American culture. Overall this book can have a powerful effect on any reader, but is not for the faint of heart.