I always considered my first experience with Cormac McCarthy to be Blood Meridian, his fifth novel and what is perhaps fairly considered to be his masterpiece. It was a brutal and frankly difficult read. McCarthy writes with an independent sense of style and brevity which I truly appreciated, although it took another read, and another, for me to truly connect to the work. Between those ventures I have further explored the American’s pantheon, and with that he has become a favourite of mine. However, until recently I had never read No Country for Old Men, which I realise in hindsight was actually my first experience with the author’s work as I had watched the Academy Award winning Coen brothers adaptation shortly before my first read of Blood Meridian. So, having happily rectified that, lets see how the 2005 novel stacks up 14 years, and a blockbuster movie, later.
Llewelyn Moss comes across a drug deal gone wrong whilst hunting in the Texan desert. He analyses the scene and finds a single survivor, along with the dope, and a little further afield from the scene, the money. $2.4 million of it. He is faced with a decision. There are no immediate witnesses, and it is a life changing sum. He takes it, but later at home he recalls the survivor that he left to die and, wracked by guilt, returns to the scene only to find him dead, and that others have come looking for what is theirs. He becomes a wanted man, pursued by Anton Chigurh, an almost elemental force of destruction who is hired to track down the money but seems to operate only on his own will, independent of his contractors. He cuts a bloody trail across the border county, one which the local sheriff can barely keep up with and which forces him to reflect on the state of the world, and his own sense of morality.
Each chapter starts with an italicised monologue from the perspective of Sheriff Bell, who is attempting to justify his failure in his pursuit of Chigurh and to understand his role in a world which has changed beyond recognition. Although the conceit of the story kicks off with Llewelyn and his dilemma, it is how both Chigurh and the Sheriff react to the world which provides the deepest exploration into the existential themes which this novel presents.
But first, lets just talk a bit about McCarthy’s prose. I suppose it is possibly not for everyone, his sentences are short and repetitive, using basic connectives in place of commas, reducing his grammatical toolkit to the bare minimum. There aren’t quotation marks to indicate speech, and during long dialogue sections he is quite happy to just let the words flow down the page without constantly reminding the reader exactly who is speaking. Visual descriptions of characters are bare and up for interpretation, but the landscapes which the story moves through are described in striking, almost cinematic tones, as if he was writing for a screenplay. Having read McCarthy before this is something I expected, desired even, as it is a style I am completely on board with. To me it suits the big sky environments in which all of his stories exist. The lack of punctuation contributes a sense of flow, of the sky meeting the horizon and not stopping, but blending with the world, and puts every sentence be it dialogue, description, or action, on an even keel of importance which seems vital when McCarthy often brushes over traumatic or bombastic events with a cool brevity.
In the world of his words everything just is.
I believe this is reason enough to read this novel, but then I think that is reason enough to pick up any McCarthy book almost at random. What No Country… has over Blood Meridian for instance, is a greater simplicity in the way in which it tackles dense and existential philosophical themes. The trio of central characters, and even the excellently informative title (taken from a W.B Yeats poem, Sailing to Byzantium) guide the viewer to a state where it is clear enough what questions this novel serves to pose, without pandering or hand holding.
And what is it exactly that is being asked?
Although I don’t intent to dive deep into the philosophical ether here, I think it is fair to say this book has an overtly Nietzschean sensibility, smartly dissecting a world in which traditional Christian morality is challenged by men who believe they live in a Godless world and, in particular, a Godless country, as it is most specifically about America, and Americans. Although it is indeed no country for old men, it is not necessarily the country that has changed, but the men, or I should say, one man in particular. Sheriff Bell seems to recall finer days when crooks were horse rustlers and bar brawlers, not rapists, or nihilistic killers like Chigurh, who seems to exist on a plane of existence beyond the realms of reason.
But Bell also recalls his own failures, his own horrible cowardice during WWII when he abandoned the men under his command to die. Even just the war in itself presents the terrifying depravity of man. All that has most certainly changed for the Sheriff is perspective. People have always done terrible things, in fact, consider this thought in relation to McCarthy’s works which are set in more distant periods of the west, Blood Meridian for example, in which men scalp and murder men, women, and children, for profit, sport, and for the sheer simple act of doing. That novel is full of senseless, sudden violence, and yet Chigurh is treated by Bell like a demon risen up from the depths of hell.
For all his crimes he is not a demon, it is just that Bell no longer has the strength to battle him. The world has moved beyond him. His usefulness is running thin.
Llewelyn, on the other hand, almost does. He is a young man, determined, principled, and the antithesis of Chigurh. He believes in free will, he believes that if he is strong enough, determined enough, that he can do what it takes to survive and win.
Chigurh believes that the dye is always set, that the people he murders were bound to be murdered by him for the path that they walked led them to be together and that there could be no other way. It is why he sometimes offers the option to decide the fate of a victim on the toss of the coin, if they win the toss, it always was, if they lose the toss, it always was. The coin doesn’t make a choice, it simply is, and he simply acts.
In the end, Chigurh comes the closest to victory. It seems a sour, dour note to end, with Chigurh being such an uncommonly terrifying antagonist, but McCarthy has never exactly been a beacon of optimism. It doesn’t necessarily mean you must subscribe to the thought that Chigurh is right, it is just that on this occasion, there was no man or woman who could stop him.
In America, particularly when considering the western myths upon which McCarthy builds his worlds, it is natural and right for man to do as he wills. When a man wills something cruel, it is necessary for a stronger man with an equal will to match him and end him.
Chigurh represents a black mirror for the majority of humanity, a complete and devastating moral opposite. We are conditioned to treat human life as sacrosanct, whereas Chigurh sees it as expendable. Where there is fault, he sees the cure in death. He cannot be reasoned with, bargained with. What Sheriff Bell fails to realise is that Chigurh is still mortal. He considers him to be evil incarnate, an unstoppable force of nature, but he is just a man whose moral code has wavered from the trodden path. Bell’s black and white moral code blinds him to the dimension from which Chigurh has emerged and because of that he lacks the will, or the capacity, to stop him.
But blind fate crashes Chigurh’s car at the end of the tale. He is in the wrong place at the wrong time and, for all his talk on the inescapable threads of fate, he attempts to escape his own through reasoning, and bargaining, with two witnesses by bribing them for a shirt to make a sling and to forget his face. Whether he realises it or not in doing so he proves that he is just a man and just as culpable to circumstance as any other. Only his attitude is different. Life, for all philosophy, religion, and will, is chaotic, random, and any moral code is still a code, and a code can be disrupted. When it comes down to it, the demonic Chigurh bargains for his freedom, like so many who stood before him and fell dead at his feet.
McCarthy doesn’t offer up a codex on how to live a good life with this book. There are no definitive answers in the lives of the central trio. He refrains from reprimanding or encouraging the outlooks of any of them, not even the murderous Chigurh. Instead he allows the questions concerning morality and free will to flourish and expand throughout a novel which is, on a basic level, also very entertaining, fast paced, and bloody.
I do not consider it McCarthy’s best work, but it is a damn good place to start diving into his portfolio if you are yet to begin.