I recently finished Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men and have since found it difficult to stop thinking about. Generally it takes a lot for a story to have such a lasting effect on me, but McCarthy’s novel is anything but a regular story.
The premise is fairly simple, but charged with intrigue: a lone man, hunting in the desert, stumbles upon a deserted house surrounded by bullet hole-strewn vehicles and corpses. Before long the hunter stumbles upon a satchel containing two million dollars. Throwing caution to the wind, the hunter steals the satchel and runs, prompting a long, bloody chase involving the Mexican mob, a brutal, calculating murderer, and a mysterious hitman.
To call McCarthy’s book “bloody” may be an understatement - No Country For Old Men is one of the more violent novels I’ve read. McCarthy’s unadorned style intensifies the impact of many of the book’s action scenes - due to the lack of flowery description and unnecessary brush strokes, it is much more difficult to tell when a gunfight might start. It could happen when a character is walking down the street, or shaving in the mirror - it’s almost impossible to predict. As such, many scenes gain a certain kind of tense excitement that they wouldn’t normally have, which adds to the rapid-fire pace of the novel.
Of the novel’s many strengths, one of the most notable can be found in the book’s characters and how their actions relate to the overarching themes. For example, Llewelyn Moss, the aforementioned hunter and the protagonist, is compelling in the way he reacts to danger. Despite the adversity he faces, Moss prepares for confrontations with forethought beyond what any normal capacity, suggesting he has dealt with some kind of similar situation in the past. McCarthy tells the reader very little about Moss himself - it is eventually revealed that he fought in Vietnam, but beyond this not much can be discerned except through his actions. Moss stands somewhere between good and evil, harkening back to the cowboys of old. He is not purely good; he kills some, abandons others, and destroys property. Moss’ outlook on life is a harsh one, but he remains faithful to his beliefs even in the face of death.
On a personal note, the novel’s ending was actually such a surprise that I stayed up much longer than I should have and finished the book. Though it was initially an unpleasant shock, I realized it tied into the themes throughout the book, and even the title. Over the course of the story events are trailed by an old Texan sheriff, with between-chapter asides written from his perspective. At the book’s beginning I didn’t understand why McCarthy did this - or, more specifically, why this sheriff is considered to be the book’s protagonist. As it stands, I will deign to state the conclusions I made involving him, the main antagonist, and what eventually becomes of Moss; it would be more rewarding for other would-be readers to come to their own conclusions.
Normally I don’t find myself gravitated to crime dramas, but No Country for Old Men ascends beyond its genre to become something more. It is captivating and violent and bleak, but thought-provoking as well, with poignant themes wrapped in smooth prose. I would heartily recommend it.