No Country for Old Men
by Cormac McCarthy
A review by Ira Boudway
As a matter of fair warning, know the following about Cormac McCarthy's new novel
No Country for Old Men: Women exist mainly to show primordial attraction
and inarticulate loyalty toward men; men are more at ease sawing off shotgun barrels
or dressing their own bullet wounds than they are in the presence of women, children
or their own emotions; any character you find yourself rooting for is likely to
be murdered within a few pages; and the old sheriff who acts as the book's moral
compass will complain, twice, about young people "with green hair and bones in
their noses." But to be put off by McCarthy's crusty machismo would be to miss
out on a taut thriller that not only holds, but also rewards, close attention.
Like several of McCarthy's previous novels, No Country for Old Men chronicles
a series of violent deaths along the Texas-Mexico border. But this time the
setting is 1980, and instead of horses and land the mayhem revolves around a
leather case packed with $2 million in drug money. Llewelyn Moss, a welder hunting
antelope near the Rio Grande, comes across the remains of a botched heroin deal
-- shot up 4x4 trucks, Mexicans and the leather case. Moss carries the case
away and becomes the object of competing manhunts. Among the hunters are Sheriff
Bell, who shares a hometown with Moss and his wife, Carla Jean; Carson Wells,
an ex-Special Forces officer hired by the case's original owner; and Anton Chigurh,
a freelance killer who dispatches some of his victims with a pneumatic prod
made for slaughtering cattle. At one point Chigurh forces Carla Jean to call
a coin toss for her own life. Where it falls is in keeping with the general
tilt of the plot.
For all his hard-earned reputation as a throwback, McCarthy is a thoroughly
cinematic novelist, and never more so than in No Country for Old Men.
Here he sheds the bombast that weighs down some earlier works and leaves intact
the precise description of movement and action for which he is justly famous.
Here is Moss in a hotel room customizing a new gun:
He "unwrapped the shotgun and wedged it in an open drawer and held it and
sawed the barrel off just in front of the magazine. He squared up the cut with
the file and smoothed it and wiped out the muzzle of the barrel with a damp
facecloth and set it aside."
Nothing extraordinary perhaps, but even Ashton Kutcher would know just what
to do during filming. Later we see and hear Chigurh offing a man at the same
"Chigurh shot him three times so fast it sounded like one long gunshot
and left most of the upper part of him spread across the headboard and the wall
behind it. The shotgun made a strange deep chugging sound. Like someone coughing
into a barrel."
(Not surprisingly, the movie rights to No Country for Old Men have already
been sold. The job of adapting the screenplay should be the easiest money a
writer ever made.)
But what's so special about meticulous descriptions of gunplay? What separates
McCarthy from high-grade pulp? The short answer is that the violence is headed
somewhere unexpected. In what is sure to make for an adrenalized movie scene,
an encounter between Moss and Chigurh leads to a chaotic shootout through the
streets of Eagle Pass. Buckshot rattles off of balustrades and shatters windows,
cars skid sideways down Main Street in clouds of rubber smoke, and Moss eventually
staggers away wounded. In a run-of-the-mill thriller, the scene would be revisited,
if at all, in a quick mention of police tape and bloodstained sidewalks. In
No Country for Old Men, we get the hired hand, Carson Wells, inspecting
the aftermath and discovering the victim of a stray bullet:
"A darkened room. Smell of rot. He stood until his eyes were accustomed
to the dimness. A parlor. A pianola or small organ against the far wall. A chifforobe.
A rockingchair by the window where an old woman sat slumped."
Wells snaps a couple of photographs of the corpse and, when he catches up with
the convalescing Moss, presents them to him. The 10 pages of dialogue that follow
are as pitch-perfect and riveting as any that have been put on paper. The scene
ends this way: "When he was gone Moss turned up the photographs lying on
the bed. Like a player checking his hole cards."
"There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," McCarthy said 13 years ago
in a rare interview. And like his character Moss, McCarthy can't help peeking.
The constant question underlying his fiction is how we are to live on in the
face of this knowledge. At the end of No Country for Old Men, in the
last of his ruminations that punctuate the book, Sheriff Bell poses a version
of this question as he ponders the unknown mason of an old water trough:
"That country had not had a time of peace of any length at all that I
knew of ... But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out
a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that?"
Bell's answer surely echoes McCarthy's own project as a writer:
"And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some
sort of promise in his heart. And I dont have no intentions of carving a stone
water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise."
Here's hoping the stone trough makes the director's cut.