No Country for Old Men
by Cormac McCarthy
No Country For Old Men (2005), by Cormac McCarthy is 309 pages long but seems shorter. This is partly because it is a good story exceptionally well told and partly because of the economical sparseness of the prose, which matches the desert scrubbiness of its location. Set in southern Texas, in the year 1980, near the Rio Grande and the Mexican border it is, at first sight, a conventional Western brought up to date: an all-too-human sheriff trying to protect his community from a gang of psychopathic killers; an unsuspecting homesteader stumbling into evil and becoming its target; and an avenging, dark rider - a hired gunman who relentlessly tracks down his victims and kills them without conscience. The cattle rustlers have been replaced by drug smugglers, the horses by powerful four-by-fours, and the pistols by an arsenal of high-velocity or automatic weapons, but you will recognise the mythical landscape immediately.
The story describes the violence that ensues when a local man (Moss), a Vietnam veteran, accidentally comes upon a scene of human slaughter in the desert while hunting antelope alone in the early dawn. It's a drug swap gone wrong and he finds the vehicles shot up and abandoned, the bodies of men, one barely alive and dying of thirst, the cargo of heroin and later, fatefully, two million dollars in cash, which he decides to keep. The next night, troubled by the memory of the man he left dying, Moss returns to the scene only to find that the dying man has already been executed by others who have come to collect the heroin and money. They see Moss, chase him and wound him, but lose him in the shoulder-high carizo cane as he flees across the river.
Thinking he can outwit his pursuers, keep the money and save his life, Moss goes on the run, sending his bemused and indignant wife to stay with her dying mother in Odessa. But Moss, although not a stranger to death in battle, is mixed up with killers whose psychopathy and dedication to pure violence is beyond his conception. The epitome of pure, calculated, conscience-free violence, is the mysterious Anton Chigurh (pronounced Ant On Sugar, geddit?), the pale rider who always gets his man and has no enemies because they are all dead.
These violent events are partly related through the reminisenses of sheriff Bell as he tries to comprehend them as a symptom of what he describes as America going to 'hell in a handcart', a society seemingly torn to pieces by drugs, family breakdown, random violence, organized crime and general craziness. His reflections are narrated in a folksy Texan dialect that aims to seduce us by its unpretentiousness, seeming to say, Whadda I know about anything? You better believe me. His is a nostalgic, lamenting voice punctuating the bare recitation of violent incidents and broken lives.
And there is something significant in the two main stylistic modes of the novel: the first (Bell's), narrated in the first person, reflective, self-reflexive, nostalgic, baffled, and human; and the second, narrated in the third person, in which we are never told what characters think or feel, only what they say and do, expressed as short staccato utterances and short sentences that read like screen directions. Here's a random example:
"She was sprawled across the sofa watching TV and drinking a coke. She didn't even look up. Three oclock, she said.
I can come back later.
She looked at him over the back of the sofa and looked at the television again. What have you got in that satchel?
It's full of money.
Yeah, that'll be the day.
He went into the kitchen and got a beer out the refrigerator."
Contrast this with Bell's story-telling inner dialogue:
"Lorretta [Bell's wife] told me that she had heard on the radio about some percentage of the children in this country bein raised by their grandparents. I forget what it was. Pretty high, I thought. Parents wouldn't raise em. We talked about that. What we thought was that when the next generation come along and they dont want to raise their children neither then who is going to do it? Their parents will be the only grandparents around and they wouldn't even raise them. We didn't have a answer about that."
Bell's is the only commenting voice in the novel. The narrator tells us nothing but the facts. This means we gravitate towards Bell as our moral guide to this unsettling world. But, as the above hesitancy reveals, he is uncertain. He believes in the truth and the wisdom that seeps through the stories of his ancestors but although he speculates, ventures opinions, wonders and laments, he can only offer partial explanations, such as not enough religion, not enough Jesus in the papers, no respect for the law, no cohesion in the family. He is on the side of humanity, baffled and confused, struggling to do good, but often failing. Unable to hold to a simple truth because he knows that that truth is founded on a lie hidden in his own past, Bell is ultimately defeated as a lawman but survives as a human being, which is an affirmation of sorts.
The book is a meditation on lives dislocated by violence: from Bell's great-grandfather, killed in the American Civil War, his great uncle in the First World War, through Bell, himself, who fought in the Second World War, to Moss in the Vietnam war, and all the characters caught up in the drugs wars of the nineteen eighties. Men go away and don't come back, or go but can never come back to what they left; women are widowed and burdened, uprooted by conflict, forced to leave their homes, children are orphaned and abandoned, innocent men are executed, bystanders slain, lawmen assassinated. No-one knows why.
Bell discovers that his Texas is not a country for old men because the world has changed too much, in crazy ways he cannot understand. As he says, "They don't have no respect for the law? That aint half of it. They don't even think about the law." If it's not a country for old men, neither is it a country for women, young or old. This is a world of male violence where the women are either innocent victims or the moral touchstones for their men.
The title of the book is taken from Yeats 1926 poem 'Sailing to Byzantium', which begins:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees...
The irony is that in Yeats' poem the tattered old man cannot bear to live impotent in a world filled with love and sensual beauty. In Cormac McCarthy's novel he cannot bear to live impotent in a world scarred by violence. Different country, different impotence.
If you are interested in the physical terrain of the novel, I've marked the locations on a public Google map.
Review by Rob Kent.