My first encounter with Cormac McCarthy was The Road. I was not impressed.
But for some reason, I felt like coming back for more. Some urge to see if he wrote better stories when he wasn't dipping his toe in an unfamiliar genre.
Hey, guess what? He does!
Set in our own time along the bloody frontier between Texas and Mexico, this is Cormac McCarthy’s first novel since Cities of the Plain completed his acclaimed, best-selling Border Trilogy.
Llewelyn Moss, hunting antelope near the Rio Grande, instead finds men shot dead, a load of heroin, and more than $2 million in cash. Packing the money out, he knows, will change everything. But only after two more men are murdered does a victim’s burning car lead Sheriff Bell to the carnage out in the desert, and he soon realizes how desperately Moss and his young wife need protection. One party in the failed transaction hires an ex–Special Forces officer to defend his interests against a mesmerizing freelancer, while on either side are men accustomed to spectacular violence and mayhem. The pursuit stretches up and down and across the border, each participant seemingly determined to answer what one asks another: how does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?
A harrowing story of a war that society is waging on itself, and an enduring meditation on the ties of love and blood and duty that inform lives and shape destinies, No Country for Old Men is a novel of extraordinary resonance and power.
Goodreads: Average: 3.97. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 3.8. Mode: 5 stars.
Unlike The Road, which I thought was just laden with artificial "look at this pretty construction!" writing, repetitive dialog, and a weak story, No Country for Old Men has a solid, simple story and writing that actually serves its purpose. It's descriptive, terse in places, a little more wordy in others, but it had a kind of stark elegance to it and the characters were all tidy units of motivation and driving forces that could be described in a few sparse sentences.
"Sparse" is a word that comes up a lot when people describe McCarthy's writing. No Country for Old Men is a sparse, bloody Western (though it's set in 1980) about greed and murder and men making very bad choices. Llewellyn Moss, a Texas redneck out hunting, stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. There's one survivor, a wounded Mexican who begs him for water, which he doesn't have. He leaves the wounded man and takes off with a suitcase full of money.
Then, conscience getting the better of him, he comes back later that night to bring the man water.
McCarthy writes dark and bloody stories. Good deeds do not go rewarded. Instead, you only get consequences. Consequences relentlessly follow every choice, detached from the rightness or wrongness of the choice. Anton Chigurh embodies this principle. He is the freelance murderer who pursues Moss relentlessly through the book, dealing out consequences to everyone in his path. He's a remorseless stone-cold killer, but one with equally stone-cold principles. The movie, while generally very faithful to the book, I think did Chigurh a disservice in this respect. In the movie, he's just a scary psychopathic killer, Jason Voorhees with a bolt gun. In the book, he actually explains his code of principles. He is, in his own amoral way, completely honest, if devoid of any other human virtue.
I loved the plotting. I liked the sparse (did I mention, considerably less florid than The Road?) writing. The characters served their purpose, but once you peel away the forces and events that moved them through the story and motivated their choices, there wasn't a great deal of depth to them.
One thing missing from the movie (except in the very beginning) was Sheriff Bell's monologues at the beginning of each chapter. He rambles on and on about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket and law enforcement isn't like it was in the old days and OMG these kids today are so violent and criminals are so much worse, yadda yadda. There is also a revelation about a secret in his own past. His rambling took up the last few pages of the book -- the movie lost nothing by cutting them.
Verdict: Bleak and bloody and brilliant, except when the author gives too much page space to cranky old man Sheriff Bell, who's about as useless in the book as he is in the movie. But No Country for Old Men convinced me to reconsider Cormac McCarthy.