Pure evil…

Author:  Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men book coverIt seems like an overly simplistic cop out.  When a movie or novel’s protagonist comes face to face with pure unadulterated evil, it leaves reality and slides into fantasy.   Often much to its detriment.   So it was with this kind of skepticism that I took the plunge into Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.  Would this just be another work, chronicling the horrors of unfathomable evil?

While hunting in western Texas, near the Rio Grande, young Llewelyn Moss spots three trucks on the desolate plains.   Further inspection reveals a collection of recently dead bodies, a large stash of heroin and two million dollars in cash.  Clearly, a drug deal gone bad.  Seizing the opportunity, Moss packs up the money and quickly heads home.  Over the next three hundred pages, McCarthy eloquently unveils the many ways that one simple act can go so wrong.

Not surprisingly, there are those who have noticed the missing funds and they want their money back.  No one more adamantly than the formidable Anton Chigurh, one of the drug lord’s hitmen.  As he proceeds to hunt down Moss, he assiduously eliminates anyone who gets in his way.  Close behind him is the aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who has the unenviable task of cleaning up the numerous bloody messes Chigurh leaves in his wake.

Unfortunately, a brief synopsis doesn’t really capture the book at all.

Chigurh (ironically pronounced “sugar”) is one of the most bad-ass villains I’ve ever encountered.  Like the judge in Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s evil protagonist is fascinatingly complex – horrific, charismatic, thoughtful, unrelenting and almost omnipotent.  In contrast, Sheriff Bell – who frequently interrupts the story with his thoughtful reminiscences – is seemingly omniscient, watching the violent tragedy play out inexorably over the vast desert plain.

Published in 2005, when McCarthy was well into his seventies, the book frequently gives voice to the plight of Sheriff Bell as he nears retirement and can no longer stomach what he sees as the deterioration of modern society.  While it could be derisively viewed as a failing old man’s futile musings against change and a nostalgic desire for the past, Bell’s narrative is so poignant and powerful that even the most hard-hearted reader is likely to suffer along with him.

While memorable characters like Bell and Chigurh are each substantial enough to carry a novel entirely on their own, the book is also buoyed by McCarthy’s hauntingly effective writing style.  While it’s not quite as intentionally cryptic as Blood Meridian, the prose and dialogue still presents quite a challenge.  But brave readers should simply let it flow, as McCarthy’s enigmatic delivery will seep into your pores and eventually just pull you along.

So much more than a simple story of a sheriff pursuing a bad guy in the Wild West, No Country for Old Men is a modern day fable that builds quietly and inexorably.  It interweaves fatalism and loyalty to create a uniquely powerful story.  Highly recommended.

— D. Driftless

Check out Dave’s review of Blood Meridian here.

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