I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy‘s latest novel, No Country For Old Men. I think it’s McCarthy’s best book since Blood Meridian twenty years ago, which is to say that I liked it better than any of the “Border trilogy” novels that made McCarthy famous.
No Country For Old Men is spare and lean, McCarthy at his most minimal. It’s also set in 1980, which makes it the closest to present-time of any of McCarthy’s books. It’s set in the same southwestern desert territory as all his books since Blood Meridian. But there’s much less sublime description of nature than in the earlier books; instead, a lot of the action plays out in anonymous motel rooms in small West Texas towns. There are no accounts, either, to match the descriptions of wolves and wild dogs and horses in the earlier books. At the start of No Country For Old Men, one of the protagonists, Llwellyn Moss, is hunting antelope; but when he stumbles across a heroin deal gone bad, with lots of dead bodies and a suitcase containing $2.4 million — when he decides to pick up the suitcase — nature and hunting disappear from the novel, never to return. No Country For Old Men is the story of Moss’ doomed attempt to make off with the money, and of Chigurh, the ruthless killer who wants to recover the suitcase, and of Bell, the sheriff who wants to solve the murders and make sense of all the violence.
In its spareness, the novel plays out like a very taut thriller; though contrary to genre expectations, certain crucial aspects of the plot are elided or decentered, and others are never fully explained. The first half of the novel — except for Bell’s monologues, which I will get to in a moment — are almost pure action; as the novel progresses, however, we finally get some of the metaphysics of which McCarthy’s earlier novels are full. However, there are no dense Faulknerian/Melvillean passages such as were found in the earlier books; here, the sense of fatality is all the more intense for coming only in the clipped and understated conversations of the characters, brief and plain statements punctuated by long pauses. The vision of life offered us in rare glimpses is almost unbearably bleak: god is absent, evil rules the world, fate cannot be averted. Of course such a bald summary does a great injustice both to the poetry with which McCarthy expresses these ideas, and to the extremity of his gnosticism (I refer the reader to my old friend Leo Daugherty’s article on the gnostic subtext of Blood Meridian, available here).
No Country For Old Men is a lesser work than Blood Meridian: but this is scarcely a criticism, considering that, in my humble opinion, Blood Meridian is the greatest American novel of the 20th century. In many ways, the new book is structurally similar to Blood Meridian, and can be seen as a less ambitious update into the near-present of the earlier book. In both novels, the landscape of the American Southwest is drenched in blood: the effect is existentially chilling, but the novels also go beyond the existential in that they comment on American history and society more generally. In Blood Meridian, set just after the Mexican War of 1848, America as the land of Manifest Destiny is at stake, especially with regards to the Anglos’ relations to Mexicans and Indians. The novel is a revisionist Western with strong cinematic echoes, though it is more lacerating and more fundamentally savage and negative than anything ever done in Hollywood movies. In No Country For Old Men, the historical field is more restricted: it is sort of about America after the 1960s and Vietnam, in a form that reflects the nihilistic crime genre more than the Western — though references to the latter genre, and historical continuities with earlier times, are also present.
There’s a fascinating figure of pure evil at the heart of both books; though Chigurh, for all his coldblooded singlemindedness, and seeming ability to inhabit Fate and become its agent (instead of just passively suffering it like everybody else does), still is ultimately human-all-too-human, in contrast to the superhuman ferocity and perversity and mythic perseverance of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. Chigurh is recognizable as the samurai-esque gangster familiar from a lot of recent movies; though McCarthy radically demystifies this figure, in a way that Tarantino and others never do. Both books also turn on the figure of a witness: a (relatively) innocent character who observes — but is never able to really comprehend — the central figure of evil, and the monstrous actions all around him. In Blood Meridian, the witness is a young man (15 or 16 years old) who is never named but only called “the kid.” In No Country For Old Men, the structurally identical role is played by Sheriff Bell, who must be in his mid-fifties but feels (and sounds) much older.
Bell’s monologues are spaced throughout the book, offering a counterpoint to the third-person omniscient narration of the rest of the text. Some idiots have claimed that Bell provides a “moral compass” for the novel (I won’t link to them here, but if you are curious you can find them through Google). The fact is that, far from providing any sort of definitive judgment on Chigurh’s actions and the events of the novel, Bell always finds himself outside them, behind them, too late to do anything about them, unable even to contextualize them in any way he finds satisfactory. He’s a decent guy, and probably a Bush/Reagan voter (he complains lamely about kids with punk hairstyles, and at one point suggests that, with abortion legal, enforced euthanasia of annoying elderly relatives can’t be too far behind); but even if these are also McCarthy’s personal views (I have no idea), they don’t define the metaphysical perspective of the novel. Bell spends a bit of time lamenting how morals have decayed since the good old days — a notion of which he would have easily been disabused, if he had ever read any of McCarthy’s novels set in earlier times. But in the long run Bell admits that such idealizations are untenable; violence and evil are inscribed in the land, in our history, and probably too in our very nature as limited, imperfect and selfish selves (in what is the hyperbolic gnostic version of Original Sin). Bell never captures Chigurh, or saves Moss’ wife as he hopes to, or indeed arrests anybody, or even saves a man he believes is innocent from receiving the death penalty; at the end of the novel, he harshly judges himself a failure, feels that he has been defeated (which he is, and has been, but no more so than any other human being). (Perhaps because he gives up and retires, in acknowledged defeat, he is not murdered by the novel’s evil figure, the way the kid finally is).
The figure of the witness is necessary, in both Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men, because he is the only one who can experience the pathos, the affect, the tragedy of McCarthy’s vision. The new novel’s flatness (as I’ve already said) suggests a diminishment in comparison to Blood Meridian‘s utter sublimity (which is of Melvillean and Biblical dimensions). But in both novels it is only through the witness figure that the inhuman coldness of the universe (of McCarthy’s vision of the Universe) can be felt and registered, can itself be spelled out in humanly recognizable terms. No Country For Old Men has a sadness to it, striking a new tone in McCarthy’s fiction; and what’s most remarkable about the book, perhaps, is how this new tone overlays, but does not mitigate or sublimate, the unsparing, nihilistic ferocity of McCarthy’s overall vision. I felt that in the Border trilogy, as well as in his play The Stonemason, McCarthy was to a certain extent fleeing away from, and looking for some sort of comfort against, the extremity of his own vision in Blood Meridian. No Country For Old Men cannot be accused of such a withdrawal; he has indeed stepped back once again from the abyss, but only in a way that continues fully to acknowledge it.