Saturday, 29 March 2014

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy Review

1980, the Texas/Mexico border. Llewellyn Moss is out hunting one day when he stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong: dead bodies and bags of heroin everywhere and over two million dollars in a bag. Moss makes the fateful decision to take the money and run and so begins a deadly cat and mouse game with a cast that includes psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh, a bounty hunter called Carson Wells, and elderly and world-weary Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (what amazing names!) who watches the destruction unfold. Will Moss escape with the cash or pay the ultimate price?

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is a neo-western thriller that’s a completely engrossing read. Moss’ flight from his pursuers is really exciting because McCarthy writes Moss as a competent and intelligent man able to evade his pursuers and remain one step ahead. But his main antagonist, the brutal Chigurh, is extremely adept at picking up the trail and relentlessly keeps after Moss. Both characters make No Country an enormously enthralling story to follow. 

Chigurh’s character is by far the standout of the book. A quietly vicious killer who’s deeply intense and driven in a way that makes him appear more like a force of nature than a man, McCarthy has created a character for the ages with Chigurh on par with Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector. Chigurh stole every scene he appeared in from when we first meet him in police custody, murdering his way to freedom, to the final chilling scene. Every interaction he has with any character is immediately tense as we as readers never know when he’ll decide to kill - he flips coins to make the choice for him - and the air pistol he uses to silently murder his victims was an inspired choice showing his contempt for his fellow man, viewing them as the cattle the gun was originally designed to kill. 

Sheriff Bell is the character I would say I was the most conflicted about because I both liked and disliked him for the same reason. Bell is the most cliched character in the cast - an old cop on the verge of retirement - but McCarthy writes his voice beautifully. The book is structured so that Bell will monologue for a page or two in italics before the chapter reverts back to an omniscient, unintrusive narrator. Bell’s monologues typically run along two topics for the entirety of the book: 1) the world today isn’t like the world he knew growing up - it’s a darker, more violent world, and 2) he sure does love his wife Loretta and boy is he lucky to have met her. 

The monologues become repetitive after a while but serve to break up and work effectively as a contrast to the action. And while what Bell says sounds wise in a down-home kinda way, they’re not really: the world is full of violent people? Is that a revelation to anyone? And all that stuff about his wife is corny as hell. However the way he says it is written with such an evocative sing-song quality that sounds genuinely heartfelt and lyrical, I honestly didn’t mind reading it. Given the number of awards McCarthy’s won, it’s a moot point to say he has a knack for choosing the right words, but he really does and these often mask rather insubstantial material or gussie it up to seem cleverer than it is. 

And here’s the thing about No Country: even though it’s written by a critically acclaimed writer who’s won the Pulitzer, this is not an intellectual book - but it is intelligently written. It’s not profound, it’s not overly complex, it doesn’t even have anything much to say: it’s simply a genre novel but it’s a really well written genre novel. It’s refreshingly straightforward and accessible from a writer who might be more concerned with literary complexity to the detriment of plot, given his reputation as a literary writer. Thankfully that’s not the case and his direct approach is a brilliant choice as it suits the characters and story perfectly. It might seem more literary because McCarthy eschews quotation marks for dialogue - hell, he doesn’t even tell you which character is speaking! - but it’s a thriller nonetheless albeit of a higher quality than the usual thriller fare. 

This style means that the novel shoots along at an incredible pace, the reader drawn into this lethal chase and the pages flying by as a result. It helps that the dialogue is written in a stripped down, almost screenplay-like manner and it’s interesting that McCarthy these days has taken to writing only screenplays over novels - No Country is indicative of the direction he’d take as a writer in the years after it was published. 

The only real problem I had with the story was the way a major character is dealt with towards the end. They’re killed off-page and in such a tossed-off way that I had to go back and re-read the last appearance of that character to see if I’d missed a detail - nope. It’s daring to so abruptly kill off a major player and resolve the main story in such a sudden manner that could go either way for the reader but for me, while I appreciated the uniquely different way to conclude the story, I was definitely unsatisfied with how events played out.

No Country for Old Men is an extremely violent but compulsively readable neo-western that’s genuinely thrilling and features one of the great modern literary villains in Anton Chigurh. It’s a classy pulp novel that tells its story well making it a very enjoyable read despite its rather bleak outlook.

No Country for Old Men

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