Monday, July 24, 2006

Bloody Shambles

Cormac McCarthy is known for his bloody novels, but the death toll in No Country for Old Men was still a shock. In some ways, this book read more like a James Ellroy novel than a typical McCarthy book (or, at least, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, which are the other McCarthy books I’ve read). It’s propulsive like a typical thriller—and in that way it resembles Ellroy or Michael Connolly. It never lingers over the land, and only toward the end do you get the elegiac deep sigh that is so typical of McCarthy.

Llewellyn Moss is a 30-something Vietnam vet (the story appears to take place sometime in the 80s) who stumbles across the aftermath of a gun battle in an isolated area near the border. Several trucks and dead bodies, a large amount of heroin, and a briefcase full of cash. Moss takes the cash, but makes a nonsensical decision to return to the scene later. He escapes with his life, but his truck is found and he’s marked. (He’s marked in another way that the reader doesn’t discover until later.)

The rest of the novel revolves around several parties trying to retrieve the money, the local Sheriff’s office trying to catch the bad guys, and Moss trying to keep himself and his 19-year-old wife alive. After his first blunder, Moss seems to get much smarter and more resourceful, but he’s up against a brilliant killer, Anton Chigurh. You are never sure whose side Chigurh is on. But if he’s against you, you’re dead.

Ed Tom Bell is the Sheriff of the county, and has been since the late 40s. He’s a veteran of World War II, and the book is punctuated with his reminiscences. He and his men are observers, able to anticipate what might happen and identify, to a certain extent, the players, but unable to do anything about it. He’s the old man referred to in the title, and this is his last (and worst) big case. He is out of his element, and he is painfully aware of the fact.

McCarthy is a modernist minimalist, a descendant of Hemingway. At first, he is so laconic that it’s hard to understand what’s happening and who’s who. His stylistic mannerisms are less mannered than James Ellroy—who seems to be rather influenced by McCarthy or else influenced by the same writers that influenced McCarthy. At first, No Country for Old Men reads like a regular thriller. But the inconclusive, slowed-down ending is unlike any thriller. A thriller is about that satisfying release at the end, and McCarthy doesn’t provide that.

I enjoyed this book, but it was not something that will stick with me the way All the Pretty Horses did.



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