Thursday, November 01, 2007

Book Report: No Country for Old Men

Title: No Country for Old Men

Author: Cormac McCarthy

While hunting in the West Texas wilderness, Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon the bloody scene of a drug deal gone bad. Invoking the "Finders Keepers" clause, he claims $2 million in cash (but leaves the heroin). He gets more than he expects when the Mexican drug cartel sends Anton Chigurh - a psychopath who is not quite as dangerous as the Bubonic Plague - to reclaim the money and "product."

My thoughts:
Since reading McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning The Road, I've been working my way through the McCarthy library. My goal was to finish No Country for Old Men before the motion picture release later this month.

It turns out that wasn't a problem. Like The Road, No Country is a very quick read at just over 300 pages. But while the book showcases McCarthy's gift for language, it wasn't as emotionally satisfying as The Road. I wasn't left with the sense of stunned awe after turning the last page as I was with The Road.

That said, No Country for Old Men is still and amazing work. It examines the old proverb that "No good deed ever goes unpunished." When the central character Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon the drug deal gone bad and the accompanying $2 million in untraceable cash (well, nearly untraceable), all he has to do is let a man die alone and walk away rich.

His better angels take over though, and he returns to the scene to give the dying man a drink of water. For this, he is rewarded with being chased through the desert by drug traffickers who have come to collect the money.

This sets up the major plot line for the novel, and McCarthy describes the chase with all the physical and psychological detail to which I've come accustomed through reading his other works (though stylistically McCarthy is in his Hemingway mode rather than his Faulkner mode). Anton Chigurh follows Moss and the money, leaving a trail of blown out door locks and blown out brains across the plains of west Texas, while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tracks the carnage trying to figure out what kind of person could do such evil but questioning whether he really wants to catch up with the assassin.

I give McCarthy credit for not pulling punches in the story (although by now I know McCarthy pulls no punches when it comes to death and violent imagery). In the end, Chigurh catches up with Moss, kills him, takes the money and gets away. We are then treated to a chilling scene where Chigurh, for no reason other than his demented psychosis, kills Moss's widow because he told Moss he would.

No, it's not a happy ending (Oh, by the way, SPOILER ALERT!!! Heh, little late with that, sorry).

In the denouement, Sheriff Bell retires when he is unable to prevent the bloodbath or bring Chigurh to justice (or even identify who Chigurh is). He retires because it really has become no country for old men. Bell (and McCarthy?) suspects the moral decline and growing violence of the world around him is irreversible.
"It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight."
My biggest problem with the book is that there are a couple of pretty big plot holes. One is, why did Moss, after taking the money, decide to risk discovery by returning to the scene? I suppose it was because he felt conflicted about leaving someone to die thirsty and alone, but this humanitarian action doesn't seem consistent with his later actions. I can live with this since it sets up the conflict and action for the rest of the story.

My bigger gripe is with the Moss's death scene, or rather the lack of one. We are brought to the scene after the fact with the character of Sheriff Bell. I just think that after investing so much to develop Moss's character, he deserved a better, more detailed death sequence.

Still this is a profound and disturbing book, well written and very approachable. I hope the Coen brothers have done it justice (and from what I've read, they have).

Rating: Recommended.

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  1. I agree with the contrived nature of Moss' actions to start the ball. I wonder, however, if McCarthy is trying to say something deeper about our essential humanity and the loss thereof.

    I can't wait for the movie.


  2. R.Sherman,

    I think you may be on to something. I could see where McCarthy intends Moss to be a sort of transitional character - he represents a link between the old-school goodness of Sheriff Bell and the morally decayed future represented by Anton Chigurh.

    Moss doesn't hesitate to take the money and run, but his remaining moral fiber forces him to take pity on the dying man.

    Chigurh of course represents the evil that immoral society is embracing, and he inevitably destroys everything in his path.

    At the same time, though, I wonder if McCarthy is trying to tell us, through representing Bell's own cowardice, that the good old day's weren't always good.

  3. thinking is that moss was fast on his way to becoming chigurh before chigurh did him a favor and killed him - the so called redemptive act of bringing the dying man water was moss tossing his money on the 'don't come' line, trying, in effect, to fool himself about the moral dectruciveness of his act: 'please, lord, i know i'm doing wrong but don't smite me - see, i AM good'.

    the scene is pivotal: far, far more people were probably salivating at moss's "good fortune" and happily day dreaming of what they would have done to get out of the situation clean than those of us who thought 'stay with the dying guy, go get the law, leave the money the hell alone'.

    and throughout the book, when moss starts to lose everything, he always has the choice - but he hangs on to the money to several folks' bitter end.

    if that reads to you like one man against many who, but for a little luck, could have lived the good life, then you missed the point of the quote in your post:

    "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners."

    there is no link between the 'old' and the 'now': moss is how mccarthy sees most of us...

  4. I saw the movie first, then had to read the book. I didn't understand why Moss returned to the scene. That was one thing I was hoping the book would clear up, but didn't.

    Interesting that you thought he was bringing a H2O to the dying man; I hadn't considered that as I thought Moss was worried that the man was a loose end, the only witness that could ID him.


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