Hostile territory: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Lionel Shriver – The Financial Times

Published: November 4 2005 15:32
by Cormac McCarthy
Picador £16.99, 310 pages
Like so many of his readers, I was first smitten by Cormac McCarthy when I tore through All the Pretty Horses, which justly won America’s National Book Award for 1992. Terse and elegiac, this coming-of-age fable cum road-novel told the story of two boys on horseback crossing from Texas to Mexico in 1948. Its voice was distinctively rich and mournful.
Further exploration turned up a voice a bit too distinctive. A quick scroll through reviews confirms that I am not alone in having found his 1985 western Blood Meridian, for example, unendurable. Its neo-biblical cadences (”The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off”) seemed pretentious, its ceaseless run-on sentences connected by “ands” affected and faux-Falknerian.
Fans of the turgid prose in Blood Meridian will be as disappointed by McCarthy’s eighth novel as I was delighted. No Country For Old Men is pared down and sparse, and even more plot-driven than Pretty Horses. The new novel may not be the equal of his NBA-winner, but it’s a fast, powerful read, steeped with a deep sorrow about the moral degradation of the legendary American West.
In McCarthy’s familiar territory of southern Texas in 1980, the working-class welder Llewelyn Moss trips over the detritus of a drug-deal gone wrong: a boot-full of unprocessed brown heroin, a smattering of dead bodies, and $2.4m in cash. In availing himself of what fate has thrown in his path, Moss seems fully aware that taking the money will have terrible consequences, and he takes it anyway. “There is no description of a fool,” he says to himself, “that you fail to satisfy. Now you’re goin to die.” But if Moss didn’t lift the money, he’d feel a coward – and we’d have no book.
Moss is immediately a fugitive from his once-happy home life, pursued by a posse of three: an ex-special forces agent, the hireling of a drug cartel; a murderous psychopath named Anton Chigurh, who personifies the new brutality of the contemporary Wild West; and a sheriff named Bell, who personifies the solid, churchgoing virtues that are vanishing from McCarthy’s rugged landscape like puddles on hot Tarmac. I don’t think it gives anything away that isn’t apparent in the set-up to allow that our friend Llewelyn Moss doesn’t end up merrily blowing his $2.4m on wine, women and song in Las Vegas.
The thriller pacing is agreeably cut with reflective passages in the first person by Sheriff Bell. In the main Bell’s homespun wisdom is resonant.
With the border between Mexico and the US hopelessly porous, evils seep from the impoverished south into the States: women kidnapped into sexual slavery, drugs of every sort. But Sheriff Bell recognises that the sickness is mutual, for Mexican drug-runners are feeding an appetite on the other side of the border that is equally corrupt. “We’re bein bought with our own money… Money that can buy whole countries. It done has. Can it buy this one? I dont think so. But it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It’s not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was. There’s always been narcotics. But people dont just up and decide to dope theirselves for no reason. By the millions.”
Parenthetically: I’m sorry to be a pedant, and I’m fond of that passage. But what is the logic in keeping the apostrophe in it’s and omitting it in dont? For that matter, why does McCarthy award Texas the upper case, and english the lower? Capturing the colloquialisms of speech is one thing; inconsistent fiddles with punctuation and capitalisation seem like messing for its own sake.
A quibble. Otherwise, the prose is effectively penetrated by Bell’s lost mystification at the rapid transformation of his country. McCarthy himself seems to be one of the “old men” of the title, no longer suited to a nation more dominated by its cut-throat underworld than most middle-class Americans can imagine. As counterpoint, McCarthy’s stark and gritty narrative style is wickedly well adapted to describing the vicious doings of Chigurh.
Dressed in the uniform of a patrolman he has just murdered, Chigurh politely requests of the driver of the Ford sedan he intends to hijack, “Sir would you mind stepping out of the vehicle?” When the driver does so, the ersatz patrolman asks, “Would you step away from the vehicle please.”
“The man stepped away from the vehicle… [Chigurh] placed his hand on the man’s head like a faith healer. The pneumatic hiss and click of the plunger sounded like a door closing. The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead… Chigurh wiped his hand with his handkerchief.” The killer explains, “I just didnt want you to get blood on the car.”
Lionel Shriver won the Orange Prize for fiction with “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (Serpent’s Tail).

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