The few reviews I’d read of Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, including the lead in the New York Times Book Review, though laudatory, had little more to say than that No Country for Old Men would (will) make a terrific screenplay. So much for the art of book reviewing these days.
Another way to say it is that, as McCarthy’s style, in the course of nine novels, has become more accessible to the general reader, so his story line has strengthened; his theme grown plainer; and his moral universe come into clearer focus. A recent McCarthy book evinces a more direct than hitherto illumination of familiar material, even if the light still springs from within the text itself rather than being focused on it from without. Concurrently, the features of McCarthy’s world have notably altered themselves. McCarthy never was a nihilistic artist— but it was often easy to mistake him for one. The possibility of that seems now to be a thing of the past, even for a Times writer. “I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet,” Sheriff Ed Tom Bell muses. “It don’t move about from place to place and it don’t change from time to time. You can’t corrupt it anymore than you can salt salt. You can’t corrupt it because that’s what it is.” What all this has to do with the movies, I have yet to figure out.
For the rest, No Country for Old Men is vintage McCarthy, with its insistence on the unity of language and the reality language conveys as an indivisible existential block (signaled by the minimal punctuation, including the absence of quotation marks from the dialogue, and the simple syntax), on the wisdom of unsophisticated thought, and on the poetry of plain American speech. Rural conversation, corrupted and attenuated as it has become by mass communications in the 20th century, remains folk art, a means of imaginative self-entertainment in a remote and isolated world of do-it-your-self where the voice you hear may be your own, or that of one or two other people— or of the wind.
If I don’t come back tell Mother I love her.
Your mother’s dead Llewellyn.
Well I’ll tell her myself then.
This witticism, which is distinctly country, contrasts with another husband-and-wife exchange concerning a stolen suitcase full of money:
No we won’t [keep it]. I’ve
thought about it. It’s a fake god.
Yeah. But it’s real money.
In the second exchange, Llewellyn Moss’s inventive country humor has soured to a brittle urban cynicism under the corruptive influence of easy cash. Years ago, Hugh Kenner ingeniously recast the dialogues recorded in the Watergate tapes in the form of stanzas of modernist poetry. McCarthy’s dialogue has somewhat the same effect, displaying the flat laconicism of Hemingway (though lacking the shimmeringly evocative emotional complexity of its Hemingway equivalent at the top of its form).
Set in 1980, McCarthy’s narrative has to do with Moss, a Vietnam veteran and West Texas native who, while out hunting antelope on the desert, stumbles across the victims of a drug deal gone wrong and the payoff itself, packed into a suitcase. Moss makes it safely home to his wife with the money. (“What have you got in that satchel? / It’s full of money. / Yeah, that’ll be the day.”) But his conscience will not let him forget the sole survivor of the massacre, riddled with bullet wounds and dying of thirst, huddled over the wheel of his truck. Against his better judgment (or anyway, self-interest), Moss drives back to the spot at two in the morning with a jug of water and is surprised there by the smugglers searching for the lost suitcase.
From that moment on, he is in flight for his life from the hit man behind him, himself pursued by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a down-home elderly Texas lawman oppressed by intimations of social breakdown, corruption, and the arrival on the scene of “some new kind” of criminal, a different species of killer from the Texas cattle rustlers of an earlier day. As a fellow officer puts it, “I just have the feelin we’re looking at somethin we ain’t never seen before.” Yet Bell, while agreeing with him, also recognizes something primeval in “the evil . . . out there, the ghost. Somethin you may very well not be equal to . . . ” For the first time since boyhood, the sheriff finds himself inclined to give the existence of Satan the benefit of the doubt.
“Human kind,” said T.S. Eliot, “cannot bear very much reality.” Somewhat in the manner of Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy tests this proposition by grinding his reader’s face in reality of the most uncompromising sort. In all his novels, metaphysical evil lurks every place, background and wellspring of the human and social evil that corrupts the world, from the Mexican-American frontier of the Apache Wars in the antebellum period to the drug-ridden America of the late 20th century. “It’s not even a law enforcement problem,” Bell thinks. “I doubt that it ever was. There’s always been narcotics. But people don’t just up and decide to dope themselves for no reason. By the millions.”
The anonymous fortunes (he continues to speculate) accumulated in the United States today can—and have— bought entire countries. Now Americans are being bought with their own money, to the point where the collapse of commercial ethics leaves people sitting dead in their vehicles on the desert—by which time it is already long past too late. But however complicated the outcome, the beginning is relatively simple. “It starts,” Bell concludes, “when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin Sir and Madam the end is pretty much in sight.” As from the foundation of the world, fallen man continues to provide the Devil with his opportunity—a mere toehold—and Satan takes fatal advantage of it. “And this ain’t goin away. And that’s about the only thing I do know. It ain’t goin away. Where would it go to?” Half skeptically, Bell provides the answer to his own question. “I wake up sometimes way in the night and I know as certain as death that there ain’t nothin short of the second comin of Christ that can slow this train.”
Societies, like individuals, have freedom of choice, for which they must pay by taking the consequences of their choices. In the case of Llewellyn Moss, choosing appeared to him in the form of a suitcase full of money. On the lam from his pursuer, he understands the situation this way:
It’s not about knowin where you are. It’s about thinkin you got there without takin anything with you. Your notions about startin over. Or anybody’s. You don’t start over. That’s what it’s about. Ever step you take is forever. You can’t make it go away. None of it.
Anton Chigurh, the hit man on his trail who has a penchant for having people flip a coin for their lives, sees the thing similarly:
Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere [he tells Moss’s wife] you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased.
For this reason, as a man of what even one of his antagonists recognizes as “principles,” Chigurh must do with her what he has to do. He has no “say” in the matter, he explains. “You’re asking that I gainsay the world. Do you see?”
Both men appear confused on the point of whether, in life, all choices are equal in significance, or some have greater effect than others, or a single choice may determine everything. C.S. Lewis thought that predestination and freedom are really one and the same thing. In McCarthy’s universe, they seem to work cooperatively, alternately yielding and asserting precedence over each other. Again, it is nothing the movies can be expected to sort out.
McCarthy develops a fine symmetry between his two protagonists, Sheriff Bell and Llewellyn Moss, of which there is little or no hint until the scene, superbly realized, between the sheriff and his Uncle Ellis toward the end of the novel. Here, Bell confesses the guilt he has suffered all his life in accepting a Bronze Star (though under orders from a military superior to do so) awarded him for holding a position in France he actually ran from after dark. “I should of [given my life],” he tells the old man,
And I didn’t. And some part of me has never quit wishin I could go back. And I can’t. I didn’t know you could steal your own life. And I didn’t know that it would bring you no more benefit than any- thing else you might steal. I think I done the best with it I knew how but it still wasn’t mine. It never has been.
The price Moss pays for stealing his life is the loss of it. The price Bell pays for the same act is the pain of knowing that “I’m not the man of an older time they say Iam. I wish I was. I’m a man of this time”— a ruinous time, in which he finds himself being asked to stand for something he can no longer believe in as he did as a younger man. And so he turns in his badge, unconsoled by the conviction that “It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all.” For Ed Tom Bell, resignation is defeat, “More bitter to him than death.”
No Country for Old Men is a fine book and a true one, by America’s greatest living novelist. If the movie people can make a bundle for its author without embarrassing him overly, then that will only put part-paid to the unpayable debt to literature celluloid has been recklessly accumulating over the last 100 years.
[No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 309 pp., $24.95]