A grim, violent morality tale for current times

July 31, 2005|By Christopher Corbett | Christopher Corbett,Special to the Sun



By Cormac McCarthy. Knopf. 320 pages.

Cormac McCarthy's first novel in seven years, No Country for Old Men, is the story of the last days of Llewelyn Moss, a 36-year-old Vietnam combat veteran and former military sniper (two tours, and that tells you something). Moss works as a welder and lives with his 19-year-old child-bride of three years (he met her at the Wal-Mart) in a trailer at the Desert Aire, a trailer park on the outskirts of Sanderson, Texas, in that bleak desert where Texas meets Mexico. The year is 1980.

One day while hunting antelope in the desert near the Rio Grande along the border, Moss, a taciturn loner, comes upon the remains of a heroin deal gone bad. There are several dead "bad" men, a large amount of Mexican dope and a briefcase containing $2.4 million. Seen this movie?

Moss is not a criminal, but he takes the money and runs. Alas, he does not run far. He will not get to be an old man. His wife, Carla Jean, tells an old sheriff that she loves her husband enough to be willing to die for him. She gets to do just that. A lot people get killed in Texas after Moss boards a Greyhound with that money.

Moss makes a series of very bad mistakes -- the first being to return to the scene of the crime -- which immediately links him with the missing money. His problems are not with law enforcement, but with that shadowy world of big-time drug dealing. One of his pursuers is the mysterious and sociopathic Anton Chirguh, a professional killer, a near robo-killer, who stalks Moss relentlessly. (Chirguh is armed with a kind of homemade stun gun of the sort used to kill animals at slaughterhouses.) Not a good person to have stalking you.

Moss realizes early on that not only has his life changed forever, but that his time on earth may be running out, too. The pacing of this story is fast and violent.

No Country for Old Men is reminiscent of McCarthy's earlier work -- particularly the critically acclaimed and gruesome Blood Meridian -- a horror story of the 19th-century West in the time of the scalp hunters. It bears little resemblance, other than the locale, to his most recent and lyrical works -- the so-called Border Trilogy that included All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plains.

In less capable hands, McCarthy's ninth novel contains the material for a Walker, Texas Ranger episode as directed by Quentin Tarantino. But McCar-thy is too fine a writer to allow that to happen. No Country For Old Men is a grim and violent morality tale of a drug deal gone south and its far-reaching and terrible consequences. Nothing good happens in this story. And that is the point.

One of the strengths of the book is that McCarthy, winner of the National Book Award and National Book Circle Critics Award, has a pitch-perfect ear for the way people talk in the West. The dialogue is flawless and often grimly funny. At the scene of the drug deal gone bad, leaving an uncountable number of casualties, there is this exchange between Sheriff Bell, an old-time Texas lawman, and one of his green deputies. The punctuation and spelling are McCarthy's.

"How come do you reckon the coyotes aint been at them?

Bell shook his head. I don't know, he said. Supposedly they won't eat a Mexican.


"We got another execution here Sheriff?

No, I believe this one's died of natural causes.

Natural causes?

Natural to the line of work he's in.


It's a mess, aint it Sheriff?

If it aint it'll do till a mess gets here.

McCarthy, who is a reclusive figure in American letters, does not teach nor does he write journalism. He has given exactly two interviews in the past quarter-century by my count. He spent many years in obscurity and poverty. (His first novel was published 40 years ago.) Until All the Pretty Horses struck gold (including an earnest but mediocre film of the book), McCarthy was something of a fringe personality on the literary scene, largely by his own choosing, and given the state of American letters a wise choice. His reception has often been uneven. But his fans -- and he has long been a cult figure compared with Faulkner and Melville -- will be eager to see this new book, although it is not his most ambitious.

The title of the novel, taken from the first line of William Butler Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium, may say as much about McCarthy (or old Sheriff Bell, whose meditations on the decline of American life serve as chapter breaks throughout the book) as it does about our times. The writer seems to believe that this is, indeed, no country for old men. His view of our world is merciless and bleak and seems to be becoming more so. He turned 72 this month.

Christopher Corbett, the author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express, is writing another book about the 19th-century West.

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