No Country For Old Men

For some introductory thoughts on Cormac McCarthy, see the previous entry.

All the way through Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, No Country For Old Men — at least until the three-quarter mark — I kept saying to myself “Well, the wily old dog’s finally gone and done it. He’s written a bona fide thriller, ready-made for the screen. Guess he wants a bit of a nest egg.”

That’s not as unusual as you might think. Sure, McCarthy has a rep for Faulknerian extravagance and existential cowboy philosophizing, but he’s written for the screen before (the little-seen The Gardener’s Son), and his original treatment of Cities of the Plain was actually as a screenplay, not as the third novel in his Border Trilogy. And his latest novel is still just that — a novel — even if it screams to be made into a film.

And mind you, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. McCarthy’s skills at taut dialogue, sharp pacing, and riveting bursts of action haven’t faded, and he employs them all masterfully here. The basic plot: Texas, 1980 or thereabouts. Llewelyn Moss, thirtysomething Vietnam vet, is hunting antelope when he stumbles upon a drug deal gone sour. Bodies everywhere, and, a few miles away, the suitcase full of cash. Against his better judgment he decides to take it, and is hounded from then on by drugdealers and by Anton Chirurgh, a psychopathic killer working for one faction or another in the botched deal. But the protagonist, at the end of the day, is Sheriff Bell, one of those “old men” from the title, on whose turf everything goes down, and who spends the novel following the trail of blood and wreckage left by Llewelyn’s pursuers.

Were it not for the relentless force of Chirurgh, Moss would be in the clear — he is cunning, and pages are spent detailing things like his careful approach to a motel, and the precise way he hides the suitcase full of money in the air duct. There’s a lot of descriptions of people standing still for ten minutes, thirty minutes, or two hours to make sure no one’s watching before they venture to cross a parking lot or stick their head out from behind a rock. And through all this McCarthy keeps the tension ratcheted up, way up, yet also balanced by a dry humor, evident through his characters, that we saw a little of in Cities of the Plain but hasn’t been seen in full force since Suttree.

Now come the spoilers.

And then, three-quarters of the way through, the plot-driven novel crumbles. Specifically, Chirurgh catches up to Moss, kills him, and gets the money back. Not only that, but the drama of that scene is deliberately skirted — it’s not even described at all, but only discovered by Sheriff Bell after the fact. A Hollywood ending would have demanded that either Moss get away in the end, or that he get this close, only to die at the very very end. Neither is possible at this point, but one could still imagine a satisfying resolution to the plot that involves Bell picking up the pieces and having a final confrontation of some sort of Chirurgh. But that doesn’t happen, either — Bell, his spirit broken, resigns. The remainder of the novel alternates between Bell’s inner musings, which have been cropping up as italicized introductions to each chapter since the beginning but now take center stage, and the final scenes of Chirurgh’s rampage.

The final chapters are chock-full of philosophical passages that McCarthy fans will find quite familiar. But here, they often fall flat. A big reason is the structural damage done to the novel — the way Moss’ fate is handled drains the story of much of its emotional impact. Elsewhere — especially in The Crossing, where it was laid on thickest — there’d be these huge diversions into free will and the nature of evil and whatnot, but there always seemed to be something at stake for the character in it, or some question about what the upshot would be that tied into the plot. Here they exist after the plot, not as part of it. Missing, too, are the themes of story and witness, solitude and hospitality, and the “world’s dream” — fruitful stuff from earlier books that get left behind in favor of weight-of-the-world, nature-of-evil philosophizing.

Anton Chirurgh is clearly a latter-day version of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian. Like the Judge, he is evil and probably psychotic, though he abides by a twisted sort of ethic — a straightforward code of conduct that is brutal in its simplicity. (Part of it for Chirurgh is to avoid making enemies by killing anyone who might become one.) But as transcendental baddies go, Chirurgh just doesn’t measure up. He’s better material for a film thriller, but doesn’t have the Judge’s eloquence, depth, or force of personality.

A cursory reading of No Country For Old Men can yield a pretty straightforward, conservative message, especially if you assume Bell is speaking for McCarthy. The sheriff clearly sees himself as coming from an older, simpler, gentler time, with all the brutality of the world lying in the future — and, given the way the drug trade has played havoc with his corner of Texas, you can hardly blame him. For him, the 60’s have poisoned the country, and stuff was better in his grandfather’s time. But for all that happens in this novel and in the Border Trilogy, nothing in them, when it comes to terror, fear, violence, or the problem of evil, can hold a candle to Blood Meridian. The history of the region, despite the ups and downs, can be seen as one of progress, at least insofar as things seem to suck a lot less in the 20th century than in the 19th. Besides, if McCarthy was really interested in writing a tirade about the Way the World is Going, why set it back in 1980?

It seems to me, rather, that McCarthy is interested in the Judge Holdens and Chirurghs as they exist at all points of history. The devils will always be with us, in different forms. This time around he’s examining the psychology of an old man confronting all of this instead of a young one, but the conservatism inherent in his response is just Bell’s — though to McCarthy’s credit, he conveys it so well that it’s easy to sympathize with Bell’s point of view.

Ultimately, then, we have here a failed novel by a virtuoso. What might have been a sublime potboiler falls apart at the end, and the thought novel that replaces it doesn’t have enough to offer. There’s a new perspective — that of an old man — but nothing that holds up in comparison to McCarthy’s earlier work. Of course, had this been McCarthy’s first novel, it’d have to be seen in a different light, and would deserve a heck of a lot more praise. Like all aging, great authors, he works under the burden of his own legacy. And, in this case, the burden of time — I realized that part of the reason I was expecting another Great Novel from him was that it had been seven years since the last one. But for all we know, he spent those years spending time with friends, playing pool, living life — and who could blame him?

A final thought: we could still see a movie out of this book. All you’d have to do is shift the focus away from Bell and rewrite the ending a little. It’d make a great movie for some gritty, artsy director, and — holy cow, I just realized — Clint Eastwood could play Bell and Colin Farrell could play Moss and it’d get nominated for an Oscar. Meanwhile, McCarthy fans would get to complain about how the movie was nothing like the book, and McCarthy would get his nest egg and could set to work on the next project. Or just play pool. Everybody’s happy. Maybe that was the wily old dog’s plan all along.