Saturday, 12 January 2008

No Country for Old Men by Cormac MacCarthy

The book opens with Chigurh, the sinister killer, brutually murdering both a police officer and a man picked solely because he's driving alone. Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss, out hunting antelope, finds the remains of a drug deal gone wrong: three shot up vehicles, several dead bodies, a cache of weapons, some heroin and a suitcase full of $100 banknotes. He decides to take the money, knowing it will change his life forever, knowing he will become the prey.

Chigurh is on Moss's trail. Almost a killing machine, he methodically and clinically kills anyone who gets in his way, often using a slaughter house bolt gun.

One of the outstanding scenes for me was when Chigurh pulls into a filling station just as it's getting dark. The shopkeeper tries to engage him in the usual polite conversation about the weather and where he's from. The tension mounts and the terse dialogue culminates in a coin toss. Chigurh is deciding whether to kill him and the shopkeeper doesn't even know that his life is to be decided by the flip of a coin:

The man looked at Chigurh's eyes for the first time. Blue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones.
You need to call it, Chigurh said. I cant call it for you. It wouldnt be fair. It wouldnt even be right. Just call it.
I didnt put nothing up.
Yes you did. You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didnt know it. You know what date is on this coin>
It's nineteen fifty-eight. It's been travelling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And I'm here. And I've got my hand over it. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

Meanwhile, Sherrif Bell is also trying to find Moss, trying to save him from Chigurh. While the book is narrated in the third person, Bell's first person thoughts are interspersed throughout. He reflects on the changes in society since his boyhood, since he became a police officer after World War Two. He tries to make sense of the violence he witnesses in what was a law-abiding and peaceful place.

The impact of war, from World War Two on Bell and Vietnam on Moss and Wells (who is also on Moss's trail), is a recurring theme alongside the degradation in American society. Bell is trying to atone for something that happened in the war when he was 21. Moss had already killed in Vietnam, so perhaps the carnage he unleases by taking the money is not totally alien.

The plot is pacy and violent, but the writing is generally outstanding and the tone is unremittingly bleak. MacCarthy's descriptions of the desert setting are often achingly beautiful (see here for some thoughts on the words he uses). While I enjoyed this, I'm not sure it deserves the hyperbolic praise it seems to have received from just about every publication, to judge by the quotes included in my edition. It reads like a beautifully written thriller, enjoyable but no masterpiece.


Cass said...

Great little teaser logophile! I've not read any Cormac MacCarthy. I must admit that I suffered a little bit of author fatigue last year with all the (justified) hype that surrounded 'The road'. I'm not really sure why, but whenever a novel or writer gets hyped too much, I irrationally react by promptly avoiding his/her book. Bizarre. I now think it might be time to overcome it!!

Logophile said...

Oh I know the pain when an author's really hyped! It almost guarantees that I won't read fact, I impulse bought the road last year and the mass praise was enough for me to keep putting it off! And I actually think I'll read Blood Meridian next, wait until the buzz about the road dies down a bit...