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Blood Work

Cormac Mccarthy’s Pared-Down Prose Leaves a Body Count In No Country For Old Men’s Wake

Daniel Krall

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/17/2005

No Country for Old Men

By Cormac McCarthy

Knopf, hardback

A welder peeks out from a motel curtain, nursing a gun wound. A hit man stumbles upon an unexpected corpse in an old movie theater. An aging sheriff counts up the bodies amid the burnt-out Jeeps in a desert wasteland. A young widow finds herself looking down the wrong end of a gun. Each of them thinks the same thing: This ain’t what I’d planned on.

In No Country for Old Men, his first novel in seven years, Cormac McCarthy captures the surprise of West Texans as their lives take nasty turns they had never anticipated. His characters conclude that life is too random to be predicted, that nothing we do can assure the shape of the future.

All his characters but one, that is. Anton Chigurh, the drug-gang enforcer responsible for much of the book’s violence, believes that nothing is accidental. Everything we do leads us to just one possible future, he asserts. When a woman protests to him that she shouldn’t have to die—she doesn’t have the money he’s looking for—Chigurh (disconcertingly pronounced “sugar”) replies that he promised to kill her if her husband didn’t turn over the money, and he has to keep his promise.

“Everything I ever thought has turned out different,” she laments. “There aint the least part of my life I could of guessed. Not this, not none of it.”

“A person’s path through the world seldom changes,” Chigurh counters, “and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning. . . . You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.”

In addition to everything else it is—a crime novel of breathless speed and ruthless violence, an elderly Southern conservative’s condemnation of modern America—No Country for Old Men is also a meditation on determinism. In the guise of pulp fiction, it faces up to one of the fundamental questions: Is there anything we can do to change our fates?

McCarthy established himself as one of the greatest American writers of the past 50 years by bringing together the two divergent dictions of American fiction. He writes dialogue in the short, lean sentences of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and Raymond Carver. And he writes of landscapes and circumstance in the expansive, grandiloquent prose of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe. This intoxicating combination made McCarthy’s Border Trilogy—1992’s All the Pretty Horses, 1994’s The Crossing, and 1998’s Cities of the Plain—a popular as well as artistic triumph.

With No Country for Old Men, he abandons the Melville-ean half of his style and writes everything in pared-down Hemingway prose. The result is a lean, 306-page book where little gets in way of a plot that hurtles forward with dizzying momentum.

Llewelyn Moss, a 36-year-old welder from Sanderson, Texas, is out hunting antelope one afternoon when he stumbles upon three all-terrain trucks in the desert. Lying in and around the trucks are six bodies. Next to one corpse is a leather briefcase containing $2.4 million. Does Moss really have a choice? Who among us would walk away from that much money? Nor does he have much choice about going back to bring water to the one body that’s not quite dead yet. He was just raised that way.

Those two decisions—if they really are decisions—set in motion a series of chases that last the entire book. Moss is pursued by the Mexican drug gang that was selling heroin and by Chigurh, who represents the people who supplied the money. Chigurh and the Mexicans are pursued by Terrell County Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, by the Texas Rangers, the DEA, and a mob hit man. As these hunters and hunted crisscross West Texas, more than a few innocent bystanders get caught up in the carnage.

As a crime novel, No Country for Old Men is exhilarating. It takes a while for the reader to get his bearings—McCarthy throws us into the fray with scant explanation, few hints as to who is speaking, and almost no punctuation—but once we do the plot grabs hold and won’t let go.

As a political critique of modern America, the novel is bonkers. Sheriff Bell, the elderly lawman who is clearly McCarthy’s alter ego here, begins each chapter with a first-person rumination in italics. Bell is obviously a decent, honorable man, but his social analysis—claiming America’s quagmiry wars, drug epidemics, and murder sprees stem directly from legal abortions, dyed-green hair, nose piercing, and a lack of table manners—is naive at best and meanspirited at worst.

What redeems the novel and lifts it beyond a genre exercise into literary greatness is its confrontation with fate. McCarthy has discovered that he doesn’t need the soaring language of his previous novels—though fans will miss those passages—to get at elemental questions. The death that awaits us all is as amoral and as inescapable as a hired killer, and the novelist has personified that implacable mortality in the figure of Anton Chigurh.

“Most people dont believe that there can be such a person,” he tells the widow. “You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end.”

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