McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

January 16, 2017

cormac_mccarthy_nocountryforoldmenNo Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 2005)
309 p.

I’d seen the Coen brothers’ film, of course, and admired it, and was curious to get to know the source. Also, it had been several years since I last sat down with a Cormac McCarthy book — I won’t say that I missed him, exactly, but encountering his voice again — arid, compressed, and bereft of punctuation — was like slipping into a familiar, if thorn-lined, shirt. There’s nobody quite like him.

The set-up is superb: a man out hunting comes upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, with bodies and bullets everywhere and a bag of money for the taking. He takes it, and the action of the novel unfolds. It’s a violent and sometimes brutal affair, but it has its moments of humanity as well, especially in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (of whom we hear a good deal more here than in the film adaptation).

In movie circles, Anton Chigurh is sometimes named as one of the great screen villains of all time; it is a testament to Javier Bardem that he was able to bring McCarthy’s character to such chilling life. He’s chilling on the page too, but not, I think, to the same extent, and I found that I had always to call Bardem’s performance to mind to capture his full potential.

Chigurh is a character worth pondering. As usual with McCarthy we are given no insight into his private thoughts; we see his acts and we hear him speak, and that is all. Yet because he is such an unusual character — unusually cruel and inhumane — ascription of motives is more difficult than usual. As a result, Chigurh is perceived as something like a force of nature, or as fate, and he himself seems to agree with this perception, for more than once he speaks about how his actions just happen, or he determines his course of action based on the outcome of chance events — either way, he avoids personal responsibility. Yet, at the same time, he adheres to a certain moral code, or, if that adjective seems abused in this context, then to a code of conduct. Witness his rendezvous with Carla Jean, simply because he had made a promise. And, deeper down, there lurks the question of what motivates him in the first place. It is not lust for wealth, for he surrenders the money without hesitation. Nor does he seem to act from loyalty, for he turns on his employer when his employer turns on him. At best, he might act from a very personal sense of duty, bound by having given his word. But it is hard to be sure.

The book is more than just a thriller or an exhibition of violence. Threaded throughout are observations and reflections, sometimes hard-bitten and always terse, on law, human relationships, and the dissolution of society and virtue. It’s a sad and dark vision, and would be intolerable but for Sheriff Bell, who hasn’t entirely given up hope.

13 Responses to “McCarthy: No Country for Old Men”

  1. Major Styles Says:

    Interesting. I have heard a few friends speak of this writer now, so I will have to add him to the list.

  2. cburrell Says:

    He’s worth getting to know. In the brouhaha that followed Dylan’s Nobel Prize win I saw more than a few people say that if the Prize was going to an American it should really have gone to McCarthy.

    This is now the fifth of his books that I have read, the others being the Border Trilogy and The Road. Of those, No Country is my favourite.

  3. Mac Horton Says:

    This is the only McCarthy I’ve read, and it certainly left me intending to read more. Your comparison of movie Chigur and book Chigur is interesting, because I read the book first, and felt just the opposite: to me he was more frightening and menacing in the book. That may be in part because Javier Barden’s appearance is very different from what my imagination had come up with for Chigur. Presumably he’s Mexican, or Latin of some sort, so Barden is in that respect more accurate. But I had imagined him as somewhat pale and severe in appearance.

    In general I found the book more powerful and suspenseful than the movie. It reminded me greatly of Elmore Leonard’s work. Leonard is something of a genius at generating suspense, and it’s unusual for a more literary, or whatever you want to call it, novelist to be do that. I suspect McCarthy had learned from Leonard.

    Chigur definitely seemed to me some kind of hardly human embodiment of fate and/or death. One thing that really stuck with me was his reply to someone who mentioned his enemies. You think they must be multitudes, because he’s so wicked, but he says calmly: “I have no enemies. I do not permit such a thing.”

  4. cburrell Says:

    Yikes. You’re making me nervous all over again.

    Interesting that you saw movie/book Chigur differently. Maybe it’s that old rule about first impressions. Given the choice, I’d rather have had the book as my first impression, so you have the advantage there.

    I’ve never read anything by Elmore Leonard. I have Get Shorty on my “to read” list; I’m not sure why. Is that a sensible starting point?

    • Mac Horton Says:

      I don’t think I’ve read Get Shorty. I was thinking I might have seen the movie but if I did I don’t remember much of it. I know that’s a well-regarded one but I have the impression that it’s lighter than some of his work. I actually haven’t read that much, because the ones I have read all had some disturbing characters and/or situations that didn’t leave me in a hurry to read more. The Hunted was the first one I read, and it made a big impression. Killshot–very intense with some scary characters, maybe the most suspenseful of the ones I’ve read. Another one that involved an ex-nun and a Central American dictator-gangster…not sure about the title, possibly Bandits. I think it was the least distressing.

      • cburrell Says:

        I wonder why I put Get Shorty on my list; I think there was a movie made of it, and perhaps that made me think it could be a good entry point. Killshot sounds good to me.

  5. Janet Says:

    About his moral code, there is also the scene where he flips a coin to decide whether or not to kill the clerk at the convenience store. I can’t remember if this is in the book, but I think so.

    The Road is still my favorite.


  6. Janet Says:

    Oh, and I meant to say that I found the book more frightening. One reason was that I had no idea what that thing was that he was killing people with and it was so eerie.


    • cburrell Says:

      You had the advantage, then, of reading the book before seeing the movie. I hadn’t considered that, but you’re right: the book is circumspect about the murder weapon, putting us in the position of Sheriff Bell.

  7. Janet Says:

    It’s interesting that you wrote this and I mentioned McCarthy in the post that I think I wrote the same day.


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