It’s one of the oldest McGuffins from the Big Book of Archetypal Storytelling: A man finds a whole lot of money and a few dead bodies. From then on, no matter how fast he runs, he will never be free from worry.
This is the set-up in Cormac McCarthy’s first novel in seven years, No Country for Old Men. The benefactor of the pitiless windfall is a welder named Llewelyn Moss, who at the dawn of the 1980s is hunting antelope near the border in West Texas when he sees dead men and a load of Mexican brown heroin. Nearby is another corpse, and a briefcase with $2.4 million.
“He sat there looking at it and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down,” McCarthy writes. “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.”
Doom rolls in like a fog. Back in the trailer, wife Carla Jean smells trouble. Moss sends her off to her mother’s in Odessa.
For about the next 270 pages, all hell breaks loose.
Fans of the National Book Award winner’s Border Trilogy or previous works will recognize McCarthy’s stylistic tics and thematic obsessions: odd punctuation, apocalyptic violence, a cruel and indifferent universe, a code of honor. What’s different is McCarthy’s discipline.
In his 2002 diatribe, A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose,” B.R. Myers took McCarthy and other “literary” authors to task for being unreadably arty. If Myers releases a second edition, he’ll have to revise his opinion — No Country for Old Men is almost brutally direct and unpretentious. With a Southern gothic or two in his oeuvre, McCarthy has frequently been compared to Faulkner.
But at least since 1992’s All the Pretty Horses, if not before, he’s seemed more the stylistic and existential heir to Hemingway. Strictly in terms of prose, with plain description and a dearth of adjectives and adverbs there’s a strong Hemingwayesque tone at work here, as in: “He blipped the throttle a couple of times and then pulled out onto the blacktop and turned on the lights and shifted into second gear and went up the road with the car squatting on the big rear tires and fishtailing and the tires whining and unspooling clouds of rubbersmoke behind him.”
And it isn’t just what he writes but whom he writes about. Absolutely nobody writes about rural and small-town folk better, and with not a whiff of condescension. (McCarthy’s not likely to write a screenplay for the Coen brothers anytime soon.) His language and his characters’ dialogue sounds ancestral, a recognizable but exotic analog of American English, like Olde English, and the guy has a way of making simple sentences like “He sipped his coffee, and set about salting his eggs” seem utterly profound.
Perhaps this is because the man salting his eggs is Moss, and we know that this kitchen-table scene might be his final moment of repose. Before long he’s on the run, checking in and out of a string of dumpy motels in West Texas and the Hill Country (given the bloodshed, this book will surely fail to win the endorsement of the Texas Hotel and Motel Association), fleeing, among others, a vicious and relentless enforcer named Chigurgh. Chigurgh is proficient with all manner of lethal weapons, but is particularly adept with the kind of stun guns used to kill beef cattle in slaughterhouses. He uses it on doorknobs and the occasional human forehead. As Moss lies in a hospital in Ciudad Acuna, across the river from Del Rio, another character tells him, “Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds.”
And so the bodies pile up, much to the consternation of Sheriff Bell of Terrell County, who has nine homicides beginning with the guys in the desert. McCarthy interrupts the narrative for occasional italicized monologues in which Bell talks about his life as a Texas lawman, what he did and didn’t do in World War II and his creeping realization that sometimes evil is more powerful than good. There are also, between gunfights that would make Peckinpah pale, scenes of almost heartbreaking domestic tenderness between Bell and his wife. (There’s a rather glaring mistake in one of Bell’s monologues, positioned unfortunately in the very first sentence of the book: “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville.” Although now a resident of New Mexico, McCarthy lived in Texas long enough to know that Huntsville never used the gas chamber. Old Sparky and the needle, yes, but not the gas chamber.)
As the chase heats up, Moss picks up a teenage hitchhiker, and in their exchanges he becomes more humane, even as one gets the sense that his luck could run out any second. “Three weeks ago I was a law abiding citizen,” Moss tells the girl. “Workin a nine to five job. Eight to four, anyways. Things happen to you they happen. They dont ask first. They dont require your permission.”
There are also flashes of humor here. When the girl tells Moss he doesn’t look like he’s 36, he replies, “I know. It kind of took me by surprise my own self.”So it’s not all unrelentingly grim. But it must be said that No Country for Old Men is pretty heavy, even by Cormac McCarthy standards. It’s also among his best, up there with Blood Meridian and the first two installments of the trilogy. By clearing the brush from his prose, Cormac McCarthy just got better.