No Country For Old Men

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.

11 Responses to “No Country For Old Men”

  1. Billy says:

    I still have 75 pp to go so haven’t read what you’ve said about this yet; I will as soon as I finish (today I hoper); but so far I loved the first half and then thought it devolved a little bit with the anti-abortion section and the “they thought he thought they thought he thought they thought he was stupid. He thought about that,” thing. Also the conversation Moss has with the border guard about not getting into trouble. I agree (if you’re saying it) that Chigur is nearly as scary as Judge Holden, and that it’s amazing to see so much from his pov. Will report back anon.

  2. Billy says:

    Ok, you’re right. More soon. –b

  3. Billy says:

    So I see that you anticipated my complaint about the abortion moment, and a lot else that I repeated without knowing it in the comment. I’d also thought the moment when Bell talks about people whose parents were scalped as though the settlers were fine and the “Injuns” evil was entirely without the perspective of Blood Meridian. So I basically agree with you. ( I think I liked The Crossing a more than you did, maybe). It is interesting how quickly Wells, for example, is dispensed with and the story Bell finally tells about his unit in France is something. I’ll probably say a little more on LJ when I get a chance.

  4. Steven Shaviro says:

    There are a lot of interesting feints and lateral moves in the narrative. Getting rid of Wells so quickly goes together, I think, with the fact that it isn’t Chigurh, but somebody else, who finally kills Moss, and we don’t get to see this event directly; and also Chigurh’s car accident/injuries — fate or blind chance? — after which he just limps off into the darkness and out of the novel, though we have a pretty strong suspicion that he is still out there, somewhere.
    And yes, Bell’s WWII story is an important part of it too, as regards the overall dark vision of the novel.

  5. Leo Daugherty says:

    Hi, Steve:

    I agree with everything you say about “No Country for Old Men” — even to the extent of preferring it to any of the three “Border Trilogy” novels. That said, however, I would add the following downer notes about it, none of which YOU may agree with, in no special order:

    1. Regarding Sheriff Bell’s handwringing about the “decline in manners in America,” and about how all the present (i.e., c. 1980 in the novel) manifestations of that decline spring from the fact that young people stopped saying “Yes sir” and “Yes ma’am,” the sheriff must not know about Nazi Germany, where ALL the youth said that ALL the time.

    2. Regarding his similar words about the decline of CAWKI (Civilization As We Know It) in America, as particularly witnessed in his own native Texas, does he think things were better back in the nineteenth century when Judge Holden and the Glanton gang were rollicking along (as depicted in McCarthy’s own BLOOD MERIDIAN, joyfully slaughtering everything that crossed its path?

    [These first two beg the question of how much readers might reasonably identify Sheriff Bell's views with McCarthy's own. No reputable literary critic would dare equate the two in public print, yet all the reputable critics I've talked with in private DO equate the two -- totally. It really doesn't matter:
    in either case, Sheriff Bell is certainly an "unreliable narrator" in terms of the history of civilizations -- in those two cases and elsewhere.]

    3. McCarthy never learned to plot in any standard sense and has no apparent interest in plotting. (Good!) All his novels (and he has written no short stories to my knowledge) are episodic, “picaresque” narratives — like “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Unfortunate Traveller” — although in some of them the picaro gets offed in the end. When he DOES try to weave a story of any complication, for whatever reason, he simply plugs in a sub-narrative somewhere along the line and then unplugs it shortly afterward. This is what he does with Wells and the big-shot in Houston who is controlling Wells. He introduces them as really tough and sinister hunters and would-be killers of the Holdenesque Anton Chigur only to have Anton blow them both away shortly thereafter. The only two purposes this sub-narrative could have are (a.) to show us what a SUPER badass Anton is, and/or (b.) to pad out what is actually a thin novel. I don’t know about the second, but the first is totally undercut by having Anton get seriously injured shortly thereafter in a random car crash, whereupon he limps away holding his broken bones together — seeming hardly a super badass at all. Moreover, we find out later that he didn’t do the car-burning murder of which the sheriff suspects him. (No Judge Holden there.) So why the Wells stuff? It seems superfluous.

    4. Both the power of Anton and the power of the novel are severely diminished by having Anton limp out of the narrative far too early. After he leaves, nothing happens. (What could, with Satan gone?) Just a lot of talk — some of it quite good talk, admittedly, especially the sheriff’s monologues on life, etc. Still, I don’t feel that the sheriff’s meditations, here or earlier, hit the mark of those of the garrulous old guru under the bridge at the end of CITIES OF THE PLAIN.

    5. It is odd that the deep and abiding love between Sheriff Bell and his wife Loretta, although we see it made manifest all through the novel, doesn’t seem to count for much with Bell as he tries to make sense of his world (and ultimately gives up on it, and gives up on trying to). You would think that he might see that love as some sort of grant consolation, some sort of palpable counterbalance to all the evil he dwell on, but he doesn’t seem to factor it at all. He simply takes it, and her, for granted. (Again, is this Bell or McCarthy? Again, no real matter.)

    6. Relatedly, at the end, when Bell and Loretta are going to pull up stakes and leave, to strike out for Elsewhere, WHY? There is certainly no cheaper place to live in America than rural west Texas (they don’t have much money); moreover, Loretta doesn’t want to leave at all, as she quietly makes clear. But Bell doesn’t seem to give a damn WHAT she thinks about that. Which seems odd.

    7. This ending — this leaving and seeking a new life elsewhere — is exactly like the ending of SUTTREE. But the problem is that the premises of both novels’ worldviews do not allow for any sort of “bright new place” to start over. Both Suttree and the sheriff are running from the devil at the end — Suttree even smells the sulphur, as I remember, or anyway somebody does, perhaps the third-person narrator — yet both novels clearly and unambiguously make it clear that you can’t run away from the devil. Where could you possibly go? He is, in the phrase repeated several times in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, “out there.” As one of my students put it when we read SUTTREE, “Where does he think he’s going to go in his clean shirt? Off to community college to find redemption through pursuing an AA degree in the Automotive Mechanics Department?” This “leaving it all to start anew” end seems, whenever we see it in McCarthy, fabricated — an all-too-easy way out for the characters, and, I think, for their writer.

    8. “Gritty, Brand-Name Realism,” etc. One thing that seems clear to me is that McCarthy has been reading some modern fiction in the years between CITIES OF THE PLAIN and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. He has certainly been reading Elmore Leonard, and in fact the whole new novel seems a rather competitive tour de force based on Leonard’s oft’-quoted axiom that all you need to start a novel is for some hapless nobody to find a suitcase full of money and then for serious badasses to start chasing that nobody. (If so, McCarthy is very competitive indeed in the genre. I would love to know what Leonard will make of it.) But I think he has also been reading his share of William Gibson, because the profusion of high-tech brand names and provincial high-fashion names (Gibson has used Japanese fashion labels, McCarthy uses Texas fashion labels) that studs the first half of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN strikes me as definitely Gibson-derived. (I could certainly be wrong about that. McCarthy may just have done it himself. But it does READ like Gibson — Gibson out west in 1980.) One ecstatic Gibson reviewer from fifteen years ago triumphantly cried that his books were the high point of “gritty, brand-name realism.” Which I think to be one of the most unintentionally hilarious phrases in critical history. One can only wish that poor Maxim Gorky were alive to read the phrase and to laugh at it.

    And, yeah. This book would certainly seem to seal my old Gnosticism argument, as you say. I’m going to write Bloom about it and see if he’ll give up. Nothing quite as satisfying, as you know, as a good old-fashioned high-toned critical tempest in a thimble.

    Yours for gritty brand-name realism,

    Leo

  6. Richard L. Pangburn says:

    Great review, and it greatly resembles my own take–which mentioned Leo Daughterty’s splendid essay on BLOOD MERIDIAN–originally. Since then, with the help of some other McCarthy site posters, I’ve made some significant inroads into decoding the text.

    You can go to the McCarthy site and see details, or you can go to my review or my listamania list of clues about the novel at Amazon. Not sure how to post a link here but:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/listmania/list-browse/-/291LWG318YOWM/ref=cm_aya_av.lm_more/002-6471242-9343245

    or

    link.

  7. Leo Daugherty says:

    Hi again, Steve:

    By the way, I figured out why I felt such a lack of sympathy when Anton shot Llewellyn’s girlfriend. I simply asked myself what I’d have done in her place just after Anton had flipped the coin and I had lost.

    I’d have said: “Anton, you must know that this fatalistic, deterministic philosophy/theology of yours cuts both ways — and that, in a coin toss, it isn’t just the flippee (i.e., me), but also the flipper (i.e., you) who is involved. I mean, it’s your life too — not just mine. So I’m asking you for two out of three tosses of the coin, not just one. Surely it was pre-ordained that I would do this. And surely it is similarly pre-ordained that, since the request is put to you, the decision is on your head as well as mine. You could say, ‘Oh, that’s just your self-interest talking, trying to make a deal.’ And that would be true, but that’s just my side of the street. You have to think about your self-interest, too, for what if you went against what was obviously foreordained, predestined, predetermined? Who knows what cosmic out-of-balance shit might ensue — for you?”

    Well, if I know Anton, and I think I do, he’s going to think it over and be forced to agree. He can then either say “Okay, two out of three it is.” Or he can say, “I won’t go that far, but I will flip it again to see if you GET two of of three. If you do, I’ll give you a second flip, and three if necessary.”

    Either way, if I’m this young woman, I’m ahead of the game — playing Anton against his mark inside — which would be the self-interestedness based upon his own dumb fatalistic bullshit . What could I possibly lose by trying?

    So I think she should have thought of that and tried it.

    I obviously have too much time on my hands this summer.

    Leo

  8. Richard L. Pangburn says:

    Thanks for letting me comment here, Steve.

    Like all McCarthy novels, I think this one will rise in academic estimation with time. First reviews are of the surface level of the novel, but more in depth studies of the novel will surely follow.

    McCarthy not only uses the coming of Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ in here, he uses Yeats’ “Second Coming” and especially Walker Percy’s SECOND COMING. McCarthy’s novel is structured like a movie and is full of cinematic references (“last man standing” for instance). Not only is Percy’s THE MOVIEGOER referenced widely, but his THE LAST GENTLEMAN is in here as well. The opening of the latter novel opens with the protagonist looking through a telescope at a hawk and ends with him transformed figuratively into an antelope.

    The various glasses and lenses in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN see across space/time. Probability Theory and Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory are working here. Subtexts are criss-crossed, and the work takes on an aspect of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths with the multiple meanings stacked fore and aft.

    As a thriller, it ends when the death of Moss which occurs off stage. But as a literary work, I believe it will stand the test of time.

    Thanks again.

  9. Douglas E. Warr says:

    Leo,
    Are you the “Leo” that once taught at Evergreen?

  10. John Xovox says:

    Leo,

    I read your interpretation of Blood Meridian, as Gnostic Tragedy and was surprised you missed the fact “The Man” kills a 15 year old kid in the year 1878, his orphaned brother is 12 years old. Born in 1866, the year of the next Leonids meteor shower, making the orphaned child also a child of the stars, a spark of the alien divine.

    John

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