No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel is set in Texas in 1980.  Llewelyn Moss, who had fought in Vietnam and therefore knows how to take care of himself, is a welder living in a trailer and married to a child bride, Carla Jean.  One day he is out hunting in the desert near the Mexican border when he comes across the scene of a drugs deal gone very wrong, with bodies scattered around and a load of heroin in one of the vehicles.  Close by he finds another body with a satchel containing over 2 million dollars in cash.  He ignores the drugs but instead of turning the money in as a law-abiding citizen would, he decides to keep it.

As a result his life changes forever, though predictably not in a positive way.  One of the criminals is badly hurt but still alive, and Moss’s conscience propels him to return to the scene with water.  There he is seen by someone else who has an interest in the affair, and so a lengthy and bloody chase ensues.  In evading retribution all his survival experience is called upon, and he continues on his path even though he understands that not only is he unlikely to survive, he has put his wife in danger.  But he has acquired a sense of purpose civilian life cannot match, the process of more value to him than the likely ending.

The main jeopardy comes from psychopath Anton Chigurh, who is on the trail of the money.  He is an implacable fatalist, remorseless in his desire to retrieve the money as he follows Moss’s trail but with a philosophical bent that tends to leave others confused as much as frightened.  Following his own ethical path, he is obliged to keep his word, even if it means murdering an innocent person after the promise has become pointless because the person to whom it was made is dead.  Less a man than a force of nature, he has only one purpose in life: to achieve his goal.  Able to intimidate with a look, he dispatches some of his victims using a compressed-air bolt gun, a method that indicates his view of them.  He does sometimes let fate take a hand, determining an individual’s fate by means of a coin toss, but the taking of life means nothing to him as he pursues his quarry.

As Chigurh is seen to be out of control (a reasonable estimate), the criminal organisation hires the urbane Carson Wells to take care of Chigurh and retrieve the cash.  He sees dealing with Moss the easier option, and outlines the probable outcome, but Moss is stubborn and refuses to make a deal.   In an attempt to make him realise the gravity of the situation, he tells Moss that even if he were to give the money to Chigurh, Chigurh would still kill him, just because of the inconvenience Moss had caused him.  Moss would, Wells argues, be better off handing the cash back to him.  Unfortunately for Wells, his and Chigurh’s paths cross, and he ceases to take an interest in the matter.

Caught in the middle, and sharing much of the narrative through rambling internal dialogue (perhaps McCarthy thought Terrence Malick was going to direct the film version), is Second World War veteran Sheriff Bell, who is trying to help Moss and bring the mayhem to a conclusion as quickly as possible.  The novel’s moral centre, though nursing what he considers to be a shameful secret from the war (an act that seems perfectly reasonable), he is a jaded old-time lawman who feels himself out of joint with a country rapidly changing for the worse.  Exceedingly polite, he is a believer in the idealised qualities of self-reliant community spirit.  He wants to keep the residents of his county safe even though it is awash with guns and drugs, but finds himself in a degraded society possessing values he no longer recognises.  Aware of the hopelessness of holding back the tide of violence, he has become tired of trying, and reconsiders his future in law enforcement.

Told in fast-paced unadorned prose (apart from Bell’s languid musings), brisk dialogue given without quotation marks, the action plays out with the relentlessness of Greek tragedy.   The hard landscape is beautifully evoked, and one can almost hear a Ry Cooder soundtrack playing as one reads.  It is a brutal, unforgiving country, the apparent virtue of rugged individualism it nurtures prone to tip into something darker, of which Chigurh is the emblem.  It’s not merely not a country for old men, it doesn’t seem to be much of a country for anyone who aspires to live to a decent age.  Sheriff Bell may bemoan the passing of an era, but in reality it was always more in his head than in Texas.


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