Monday, September 24, 2007

No Country For Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

At this point, it may well be silly to recommend this book. It’s been out for almost two and a half years, and the movie adaptation (by the Coen brothers – HOORAY!) will be in theaters in a few short months. On top of that, Cormac McCarthy has jumped on the Oprah train with his most recent book, The Road. The publicity machine running behind this phenomenal author and his amazing work doesn’t seem to be hurting for fuel. All that being said; this book is so good that it would be wrong of me to read it and not say something.

Cormac McCarthy is the kind of author that people will teach classes about (perhaps they already do) and his work will be dissected for meaning, nuance and style. I’d say he was an exemplar of a certain crop of writers working the themes of dying culture, dried-up hopes and barren psychological landscapes, but he’s not. He’s not an ‘exemplar’, because no one else does what he does. Sure, some try, but no matter how much they get right, there is something altogether different and in my opinion, better about McCarthy’s writing.

On it’s face, No Country For Old Men is a story of a man who finds a case of money left from a drug deal gone bad and makes a fateful decision that alters his own and the lives of the people around him. But then it’s more. McCarthy is famous for his reticence to discuss his work, and hearing opinions like mine, making it out to be grander in scope than probably intended is doubtless one of the reasons why. But here goes…

I easily viewed the protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, as a Promethean character. He’s an everyman, stuck in his strata and desperate for more than life gave him. Desperate enough to steal the fire of the gods. Unfortunately, the gods in this time and place are gods of greed, violence and amorality. Moss is quickly out of his depth. There are no supernatural elements to the story (unless you count Anton Chigurh, the downright spooky killer on Moss’s trail), but the willingness to wade into the morass of bloody retribution and risk what little he has at the story’s beginning will make you question Moss’s sanity. Chigurh is a representation of the forces that ordinary men have no business butting up against. He’s long past humanity, in fact long past even the code of conduct expected of a man in his line of dirty work. The final member of the trio of perspectives is Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff whose life is turned upside down amid the chaos that ensues. Sheriff Bell is the standard set for community and order in an increasingly violent and, to him, senseless world. You can hear Bell’s bones ache every time he reads a newspaper, every time he hears about the latest transgression against the people he protects. These three men represent the stages of a world going mad. The old guard, the new return to savagery, and the point at which one embraces the other.

Questions of humanity regressing back to animalistic impulse are prevalent in McCarthy’s work; the battle to hold on to ethical and moral standards seems to be going badly. At the end of the day, the visions of violence and depravity presented serve to contrast and enhance the dwindling few who strive to do right. There is something mythic at work in No Country For Old Men.


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