|Missing the Good Old Days
by Steven W. Beattie
It has been seven years since Cormac McCarthy published Cities of the Plain, the final volume of his so-called Border Trilogy, and 20 years since he unleashed on the world his ferocious masterpiece, Blood Meridian. The intervening years have found McCarthy in a more contemplative mood, and his newest offering, No Country for Old Men, while by no means devoid of the fire-and-brimstone violence that characterises his earlier work, seems nonetheless more muted, at once more personal and less expansive than the sweeping, apocalyptic epics of the past.
On its surface, No Country for Old Men tells a simple genre story. While hunting antelope near the Texas-Mexico border, Llewellyn Moss happens across a group of vehicles containing several dead men, a stash of drugs, and a document case full of money. Moss takes off with the money, and is soon pursued by a killer-for-hire, and a kindhearted sheriff who wants to find Moss before the bad guys do. This is fairly familiar terrain for a noir-type thriller, but-McCarthy being McCarthy-the author is not quite content to let things rest there.
The first indication that McCarthy is not simply any old hack recycling tired thriller clichTs comes fewer than ten pages into the book, when we are introduced to Chigurh, the freelance killer who chases Moss and the satchel of money. When we first encounter Chigurh he is in manacles, having been arrested for some unspecified crime. The lone deputy in the tiny outpost police station bends to retrieve the keys to the cell and without warning or build-up, Chigurh has the chain of the handcuffs around the deputy's neck: "The nickleplated cuffs bit to the bone. The deputy's right carotid artery burst and a jet of blood shot across the room and hit the wall and ran down it. The deputy's legs slowed and then stopped. He lay jerking. Then he stopped moving altogether."
In a few deft strokes, McCarthy sketches the landscape of his story: a dangerous place where random violence can befall innocents in the blink of an eye, and where the traditional notion that virtue is rewarded and vice punished doesn't apply. Here we glimpse the McCarthy of old: the McCarthy of Blood Meridian, who saw the opening of the American West as an operatic saga drenched in blood. Chigurh is a force of nature, "a true and living prophet of destruction", who tears through the book with the power and effect of a whirlwind.
The counterpoint to Chigurh in the novel is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who could perhaps be considered the story's moral centre, to the extent that it has one. Here, again, McCarthy subverts the conventions of a traditional thriller by pulling something of a bait-and-switch on his reader. For the first two thirds of the novel, it is Moss, not Bell, who garners most of our sympathy; it is Moss we are pulling for, in the vain hope that this poor, deluded soul will find some redemption, some way out of the seemingly impossible situation he has created for himself.
But Moss's ultimate fate-and particularly the way that McCarthy handles it-should put the reader on notice: "See?" the author seems to be chiding, "All this time you've been paying attention to the wrong thing." Sheriff Bell eventually emerges as the central figure in the narrative, and as the character who cleaves closest to traditional notions of morality and justice. A decorated war hero, Sheriff Bell is the repository of old-fashioned values that might seem reactionary if they weren't so difficult to dispute:
"I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools . . . And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework . . . So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I'm gettin old. That it's one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is that anybody that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I've got."
Sheriff Bell's ruminations throughout the novel are tinged with a kind of melancholic nostalgia for a vanished world, one in which notions of morality were more clearly defined and more fervently defended. But McCarthy does not portray Bell as some unthinking arch-conservative; even his nostalgia is tinged with remorse and the possibility that the world he longs to recover never really existed in the first place: "I was supposed to be a war hero and I lost a whole squad of men . . . They died and I got a medal."
The world of the novel is an unforgiving one: fallen and barren. It is this fallen, barren world that enables Chigurh to appear, like some demonic avenger, and cut a swath of violence and murder. Sheriff Bell, who decided in middle age that Satan didn't exist, finds that he must now accept such thinking: Satan, he reasons, "explains a lot of things that otherwise don't have no explanation."
These are the kinds of issues that McCarthy has previously grappled with: the big questions of life and death, and mankind's place in a universe that often seems antithetical to human survival. Like his hero Dostoevsky, McCarthy is an existential writer in the best and truest sense of the word: he insists that a person's character is defined by an act of will and that it is impossible to outrun the consequences of one's actions. Moss tries to escape the consequences of his actions, only to discover the futility of this endeavour: "You think when you wake up in the mornin that yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count."
What is missing in No Country for Old Men is the sense that this existential battle is played out on a vast canvas; there is little of the grandeur that elevated Blood Meridian to the status of myth. That earlier book owes a huge debt to Melville-one of the writers whom, along with Faulkner, McCarthy most closely resembles. It is messy, elegiac, and infused with a language that is almost Biblical in its ferocity. By contrast, the new novel is quieter, more constrained. The Texas landscapes seem somehow less expansive, and by comparison with the apocalyptic fury of the earlier work, the language is tamed and subdued. Instead of an elegy, it is a lament; instead of a sprawling, Hieronymus Bosch-like epic, we are presented with the sepia tones of an old photograph.
This is perhaps appropriate for a book that deals so insistently with the themes of aging and nostalgia, and it would be foolish to fault McCarthy for changing modes to suit his story. No Country for Old Men is arguably McCarthy's most accessible book, but it is difficult to entirely dismiss the idea that its accessibility comes at a cost. In tightening his focus, in reducing and narrowing his scope, McCarthy has created a work of great immediacy, but one lacking in the transcendent qualities of his earlier book. No Country for Old Men is a meditation about the aged; Blood Meridian is a story for the ages.