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Moss on the Run

  No Country For Old Men
Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 2005
Rating: 3.0

Posted: August 12, 2005

By Laurence Station

Blame it on the hippies. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, the acclaimed author’s first novel since 1998’s Cities of the Plain wrapped up the bestselling Border Trilogy. Set along the Texas-Mexico border circa 1980, No Country For Old Men is several decades removed from the encroaching modernization dogging Border Trilogy leads John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. This longing for the past (a reoccurring theme in McCarthy’s work since his 1965 debut, The Orchard Keeper) and a return to the insultingly labeled “simpler time” is embodied by stereotypically homespun Sheriff Bell, a World War II vet and dedicated public servant of the people in his county. Bell blames society’s ills on bad manners and pot-smoking miscreants who didn’t serve their country during the Vietnam conflict and then had the gall to spit on the men who did.

Llewelyn Moss is one such man, a reasonably contented welder in his mid-thirties, who lives in a trailer with wife Carla Jean and enjoys hunting game in the outlying hill country. Being that No Country For Old Men is perhaps the most plot-driven of McCarthy’s books, it doesn’t take long for Moss to stumble upon a life-altering situation. And being that a lot doesn’t happen in his neck of the woods, Sheriff Bell will spend the bulk of the novel trying to catch up to Moss and keep him out of harm’s way.

The harm Moss brings on himself stems from his discovery of a drug deal gone very wrong. Men are either dead or dying, and one of the corpses is attached to a case containing two million dollars in circulated bills. Moss realizes his life will never be the same if he takes the cash but convinces himself he has no choice. (Besides, if he walks away and reports the incident to Sheriff Bell, we’d have no story.) No Country For Old Men then follows the tried-and-true “man on the run” formula: Moss flees, sending his wife to stay with a relative, and hoping mercenaries in the employ of the drug overlords won’t track him down too swiftly.

Unfortunately for Moss, the money has a transponder unit nestled within it, and he discovers this escape-hampering device well after those tracking him have locked onto its signal. Aside from nameless Mexicans destined to be sized up for body bags, the main threat Moss has to deal with is Anton Chigurh, brutish existentialism personified. The unambiguously ruthless Chigurh has a credo -- “no witnesses” -- and a method of dispatching his victims that is emblematic of his view of humanity: a cattlegun. Yes, the man walks around with a slaughterhouse killing tool. ’Nuff said.

Unlike the fascinatingly hideous Judge Holden from McCarthy’s masterful, crimson-besotted Blood Meridian, Chigurh has no interest in nature or a polymath’s curiosity. The man just kills. He doesn’t waste time, save to occasionally flip a coin -- ostensibly to give his prey one last chance to save their necks. In this respect, Chigurh is closer to burly bounty hunter Leonard Smalls from the Coen brothers’ uproariously slapstick 1987 film Raising Arizona. There’s even a (presumably unintentional) evocation of Smalls when Chigurh shoots a bird off a guardrail while driving. (He's not exactly the deepest-shaded character McCarthy has sketched.)

The reference to cinema is apt: No Country For Old Men is written in a spare, clear style. Rarely does McCarthy get carried away with philosophic musings or tanglewood prose -- it’s almost as if a film based on the idea had been optioned, and McCarthy was cranking out the obligatory tie-in novelization. Still, though, he falls into the trap of providing vocabularies for his players that often seems unrealistic and unwieldy, as when Moss comments on his abandoned truck, telling his wife that it has “Gone the way of all flesh. Nothing’s forever.” (We’ll assume that dialogue will get excised in the final draft of the posited screenplay.)

McCarthy laudably manages to keep things from becoming too predictable, and the subsequent surprises are certainly eye-openers. But the book meanders at the end, especially when the slowpoke Bell visits his father and confesses to actions during the Second World War that he’s not proud of. And there’s even a line that today’s observer could read as a succinct statement on America’s current imbroglios: “You can be a patriot and still believe that some things cost more than what they’re worth.”

In the final analysis, No Country For Old Men is one of the McCarthy’s lesser efforts. But he has to be given credit for sticking to his dark vision of human nature, and for his stubbornness to not give readers a too-pat Hollywood ending. Perhaps with his next book, he’ll give the hippies a fairer shake, or at least a voice with which to defend themselves.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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