Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men (Book Review)

No Country For Old Men cover

Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men

Cormac McCarthy is a strange author: Justly lauded by the most sophisticated people in the literary community, he writes taut, engrossing books that are also perfect for the sporadic reader to take along once a year on an airplane flight. If you like seeing the lines blurred between “high” and “low” art, he may be the best example you can find. His unique quirks (a lack of quotes in contractions and dialog, with long scenes driven by evocative dialog without other descriptions) work as both a formalist experiment and a way to keep the story focused on visceral events without slowing down for introspection.

This is especially evident in No Country For Old Men, which is structured so perfectly as a thriller that the Coen Brothers later made it into a movie with almost no changes. It is a testament to the book that nearly every scene calls to mind vivid memories of a film I saw once over five years ago. (Also, a testament to the Coen Brothers and their actors that such vivid memories were there to be summoned in the first place.) It’s the story of Llewelyn Moss, a good ol’ Texan boy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a multi-million dollar drug deal gone bad. He takes the money and goes on the run. The story is split mainly between the viewpoints of Moss, the psychopathic Anton Chigurh, and sheriff Ed Tom Bell. No Country is unapologetically realistic, with Moss’ hopes for survival resting on his no-nonsense aptitude for guns and DIY repairs, and Sheriff Bell sadly putting everything he sees in the terms of escalating gang wars.

The difference between the book and the movie is in their focus. The Coen Brothers, with their love of violence and exaggerated characters, lavished attention on Chigurh. A man who dispassionately murders everyone around him but holds to an unexplained code, he executes victims with a tool designed for cattle and treats his own wounds with veterinary equipment. In McCarthy’s book, though, Chigurh is less his own man and more of a symbol for the devastation strewn by the drug war. This starts out as a thrilling crime novel, but as the plot moves forward, it becomes more about Sheriff Bell and his conviction that this is a preordained tragedy.

The Coens didn’t know what to do with Bell, and left him a cipher similar to the cowboy in The Big Lebowski. This left me very confused when watching the movie, since the title comes from Bell’s worries about the world changing for the worse. I remember thinking that there were important hidden messages behind his speech near the end, but I couldn’t figure them out. It turns out that they were meant to be taken at face value, but just seemed confusing since the movie had abridged them so much and essentially removed his detailed thesis.

This attitude is what makes the book so great. Bell is an amazing character, trying to keep his community safe while sadly admitting that he’s only alive because he’s too ineffective to be worth killing. On the surface, he sounds like every crusty old man who thinks the world is going to hell, but the words McCarthy puts in his mouth are very convincing, especially in the context of Moss and Chigurh’s story. I could quibble (violent crime is actually declining, and the terrifying Chigurh isn’t a realistic character), but mostly I just found myself wishing Bell were a real person I could talk to.

This is a depressing novel. By way of comparison, the only other McCarthy work I’ve read is The Road; Many people find that depressing, but I think it’s about the perseverance of human goodness even in the worst of times. In contrast, No Country for Old Men is about the unstoppable rise of evil in our world. Even if McCarthy stacks the deck to demonstrate his point, it weaves an inescapably somber spell over the reader.

It’s a great book, though. A complete thriller, a powerful message, and interesting character portraits are all crammed into one novel that reads faster than most books that try to do half of all that. Not a single word feels wasted: Though McCarthy’s dialog sets scenes of languorous Texans taking their time with life, every word also feels like it’s propelling the story and its themes forward. This book is a classic. A surprising, depressing classic that draws you in on false promises of a fun heist story, but it’s nonetheless classic for all that.

Grade: A

 
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  1. this review is actually wrong. the coens made a great film out of a terrible book, precisely because they changed Sheriff Bell for the reason that the character was so embarrassingly ridiculous. He is an childish literary creation, and you will cry in shame of having ever liked Cormac McCarthy if you see his new film The Counselor. He made it because No Country (the film) was thematically unfaithful to the book and still great, while the Pretty Horses was a faithful and bad film. The Counselor is so awful you’ll never want to read anything again from him.

    • Almost every character in every story is a cliche if you look at them right. I think McCarthy made Bell come alive, and the story let me appreciate him even though I’d probably brush him off in real life. I really appreciated that.
      I don’t mean to imply that the movie was bad. It had a different focus, and (in my opinion) the book’s choice was stronger, but both of them were excellent in their own ways.
      I haven’t seen The Counselor, and I haven’t been watching many movies lately. But I’ll keep my eye out for it. I’m curious about what I would think.

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