Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope near the Texas/Mexico border when he stumbles upon several dead men, a big stash of heroin, and more than two million dollars in cash. He takes off with the money--and the hunter becomes the hunted. A drug cartel hires a former Special Forces agent to track down the loot, and a ruthless killer joins the chase as well. Also looking for Moss is the aging Sheriff Bell, a World War II veteran who may be Moss' only hope for survival.
This is set in the year 1980. Before the triumphalist era of Reagan sets in and at a time when the USA was perhaps beginning to sense itself a nation that had passed something. An America when the Vietnam war was a very fresh wound on the national psyche.
Texan Llewelyn Moss is a veteran of that war. He is hunting alone in the Rio Grande hinterland, and happens upon a very bloody drug smuggling denouement - which includes a shot-up vehicle, a dying occupant, and a file case full of cash. Millions. He makes a decision that will change his own life and the lives of several others.
"It had already occurred to him that he would probably never be safe again in his life and he wondered if that was something that you got used to. And if you did?"
A second man has made it his business to find the case of money and return it to whom it belongs. Anyone interfering with this endeavour will be mercilessly eliminated. There follows a fast-paced and intensely described series of episodes as we see how life indeed changes very immediately for Moss and his family, and how the second man, Chigurh, sets about retrieving the case.
McCarthy's story is told narrated in the third person, except that a third principle character - that of the investigating local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell - reflects back on this time with a first person narrative which intersperses each chapter. The effect is one that is somehow cinematic, as we the reader experience the story in rotation from one perspective to the next. The good, the bad, and the fearful. The language used by the author is as spartan as the surrounding terrain.
"...Where he crested out the country lay dead flat, stretching away to the south and the east. Red dirt and creosote. Mountains in the far and middle distance. Nothing out there. Heatshimmer. He stuck the pistol in his belt and looked down at the river one more time and then set out east."
The characters are drawn with a similar economy but are all too believable. The character of Chigurh alone is one of the most terrifying and coldly calculating psychopaths I've ever read. Sheriff Bell is an aging and somewhat disillusioned cop, on the eve of his retirement. Bell's 'tale' as told to us is one as much about a sense of a declining morality, a changing American civilisation, and even life itself, as it is one about a drugs deal gone bad, a case of money, and a trail of dead bodies.
This is no ordinary crime tale, but rather a comment on something much larger than that, something that I couldn't quite grasp exactly. Possibly that there is a creeping decay of sorts at work, which colonises and changes society as we know it. The criminals and the cops alike, and maybe an honest welder like Moss as well. Not the most uplifting read, but a very affecting one that is well written and should have you turning the pages. Definitely going back for more McCarthy.
The violence that I knew was in this story had been off-putting to me. There are a lot of people getting shot in the head, it seems. But the simplicity in which the events are described allow the coldness of the killers characters to come through, and also let us off the hook in terms of being on the receiving end of graphic descriptions of it all. There is not a lot of mercy shown by the main perpetrator, he is a man who sets very high standards for himself in being thorough in his retribution.
The story starts in the chance discovery of a crime scene. A lot of money, drugs, guns and dead people. Moss, the man who chanced upon this scene and is very tempted by the money, makes a decision. This decision starts off a string of events that results in the deaths of many and a cat and mouse type situation involving the man who has the money, the men who want the money and the sheriff who wants the whole mess over and done with.
As usual, for me, the story is secondary to the way it is told. I love McCarthy's writing, I love the way his dialogue flows without the use of speech marks or "he said/she said" type fillers. The story itself, also happens to be quick, gripping is cast with people we can see ourselves talking to. People who are struggling with past decisions, and the repercussions these have on their current situation.
Ultimately, though, the plot isn't what the novel is about at all, and in the end it all but abandons it in order to become what it really is: a meditation about the deterioration of American society. Which is a little disconcerting, perhaps, but it works better than you might expect. I am particularly impressed by the fact that the perspective it's told from, a conservative point of view I normally have very little sympathy for, elicited very real feelings of empathy and understanding in me.
The one thing about MCarthy's writing that doesn't thrill me is his apparent hatred for any form of punctuation other than the period. I think this sort of worked in The Road. I remember commenting after reading that one that it gave the impression that all the apostrophes had been destroyed in the apocalypse, and it's possible I wasn't entirely joking; perhaps it did help to enhance that novel's particular sense of bleakness. In this one, though it mainly struck me as irritating and a little pretentious. (Not that this one isn't also bleak, mind you, but it's bleak in a different way.) Worse, there were a couple of places where the lack of a comma or an appropriate set of italics led to enough ambiguity that I found myself confused for a paragraph or several. And this, folks, is the reason why these conventions exist in the first place! Fortunately, it's a good enough book in all other respects that I was able to get past that. Mostly.
No Country for Old Men is a complex story. At one level, it’s the story of Llewellyn Moss, a 36-year old Vietnam veteran who stumbled into a drug bust gone wrong and managed to snag millions of dollars in drug money. The Mexican drug lords are chasing Moss, but his biggest concern is that of Anton Chigurh – a clever, cold-hearted killer whose methods of execution are startling and gut wrenching.
On another level, it’s the story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who policed his county without issue for a number of years, until the bad drug bust and the arrival Chigurh to his county. Bell carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, stemming back from his service during the Second World War. He desperately wanted to close this case, bring Moss to safety and retire without incident.
If you saw the movie, you picked up on the excellent characterization and spine-tingling plot. However, you missed McCarthy’s gift of writing – of presenting a story on the page that will leave you wanting more. McCarthy does not use quotation marks and other punctuation marks, which will drive the traditionalists nuts, but there’s something about the way he presents his stories that’s simple and superior. It’s like eating a delicious vegetable without the butter, sauce or salt – just the raw deliciousness that God created.
With recent comments made by Nobel judges that Americans lack talented writers, I sneer. Cormac McCarthy is among the best. It’s too bad these judges are overlooking such talent – because he’s among the best our country offers the literary world.
I am conflicted about this book and struggling to explain why. Just coming off reading The Road (which I loved) and anticipating the movie made by the Coen Brothers, my expectations were high. Perhaps too high. While I loved the sparse, bullet fire narrative style, I grew weary of Bell’s reflections. I found parts of the book to be brilliant and riveting, while others bored me. Portions of the book were well developed, while others dropped me flat with little to no explanation as to what just happened. I might need to go back and re-read the book, perhaps skipping Bell’s prose which dragged on for pages. Chigurh is certainly fascinating, if not blood chilling. I will never look at a coin toss in the same way. Did I like this book? I'm really not sure. It certainly is not for everyone.
I think you can sum up the entire review with the word above. This book is a lean juicy steak with zero fat. That is the most important thing about this story, that there is zero fluff, because if there was any unneeded junk put into the story, it wouldn't work at all.
I love that McCarthy isn't some literary aficionado somewhere at some university but he is somewhere living in a truck out in West Texas or East New Mexico, writing.
Seeing the movie before the book did not hamper my joy in reading this one bit. What is great about the book is that you get much more of Sheriff Tom Bell, and you get to see his view of things in panorama.
Moss's demise is explained in greater detail, and although it is still not satisfactory for most, it is the way McCarthy intended the book to be, without a tidy ending and without any sense of justice.
There is quite a bit more of Anton Chigurh as well, and he gives out some of his philosophy and world views, especially right before he kills someone. I'm not sure why he is obsessed with the people knowing why he is killing them before he does it, but this is part of his M.O., showing the victims that their life is hopeless if it led to this point.
This book is a fast read, and that is mostly because a good portion of it is dialogue. I'm a sucker for good southern dialogue, and McCarthy's use of the language and dialect is unmatched in this generation.
This is a highly recommended read, despite if you have seen the movie or not, and go into knowing that this is more than a story, but McCarthy's view on civilization and the culture of violence. If you missed his point in the movie, the book won't leave you guessing as to what this all means. We're all in a basket, and we're all heading down south.
I'm going out of my way here to say that I can't remember enjoying a book this much, despite the depression that lingers after reading it. It has jumped up to my top five books of all times list, and may be close to the first. I know that means something to you.
When Lewelyn Moss stumbles across a drug deal gone bad out in the desert and walks away with a briefcase filled with over two million dollars, he sets off a string of savage murders and places himself and his wife in harm's way. Ed Tom Bell, an old time sheriff on the brink of retirement, carries the novel with his dry sense of humor and musings on the philosophy of life and its moral decline. Chigurh (apparently pronounced 'sugar' ... although I thought this character could better be described as 'chigger') seems to be the embodiment of evil - a super human monster who appears to have no respect for human life.
McCarthy takes the reader for a wild ride through the first half of the book. I found myself unable to put the novel down. The scenes are nail bitters, written like a screenplay. It is not surprising that the movie based on the book will be released in November 2007.
But then, McCarthy slows things down midway, giving the reader more to think about than who will be the next victim. Do our choices seal our fate in life? Are our lives merely determined by the flip of a coin? Or do we have the power to control our lives through the moral decisions we make? McCarthy doesn't give the reader any easy answers, and perhaps that is because there are not any. In the end, we are left with the symbol of a fire being lit in the darkness - perhaps the suggestion that we may still shine our light on evil, and reveal it for what it is.
I bet there was little debate: the sheriff had to be Tommy Lee Jones.
But it's Sheriff Bell's thoughts that should be the center of any book discussion. That's where the meaning of it all coalesces. I wish online book discussions worked because this is a book I'd like to talk about.
He's captured the humanity of it all again. For me his stories revisit the same theme again and again, and as he ges older, they just get better.
I kind of want to read it again.
Just today I clicked on a trailer for the movie, yes they've made a movie of it already, and the first thing I thought was "..what a shame for those who never read the book..."
- McCarthy paints a picture of the country and the characters; the chapters early in the book are particularly good.
- The "voice" of the characters, both endearing and real.
- Musings on whether violence in man is "new", and other thoughs from the Sheriff directly in the chapters written from his perspective that are interspersed throught the book. He is far from incompetent, but is simplly overwhelemd and outmatched. His conversations with his old uncle at the end is great.
- Stark and direct. McCarthy does not waste a single word and "brings it", but despite that is still able to develop interesting characters and philosophize.
What I disliked:
- It's certainly not a book for anyone who dislikes violence (or lack of punctuation :-)), the bodies quickly pile up as the story goes on.
- Inexplicable behavior; the first of which is admitted as idiotic by the character ("I'm fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I'm goin anyways" ... also "There is no description of a fool, he said, that you fail to satisfy"), but the second of which is just baffling.
"I thought I'd never seen a person like that and it got me to wonderin if maybe he was some new kind."
"I dont even want to know. I dont even want to know what all you been up to.
He sipped the beer and nodded. That'll work, he said.
I think it's better just to not even know even.
You keep runnin that mouth and I'm going to take you back there and screw you.
Just keep it up.
That's what she said.
Just let me finish this beer. We'll see what she said and what she didnt say."
"Where's your truck at?
Gone the way of all flesh. Nothin's forever."
"You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that's peculiar or not. Because I say that is. Does it work? Yes. Ninety percent of the time. It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it."
"People complain about the bad things that happen to em that they dont deserve but they seldom mention the good. About what they done to deserve them things. I dont recall that I ever give the good Lord that much cause to smile on me. But he did."
"Nineteen is old enough to know that if you have got somethin that means the world to you it's all that more likely it'll get took away. Sixteen was, for that matter. I think about that.
Bell nodded. I aint a stranger to them thoughts, Carla Jean. Them thoughts is very familiar to me."
"The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that's a high compliment in my part of the world."
"I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would ust bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics."
"You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it's made out of. Nothin else."
"I think by the time you've grown you're as happy as you're goin to be. You'll have good times and bad times, but in the end you'll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy. I've knowed people that just never did get the hang of it."
"You can be patriotic and still believe that some things cost more than they're worth. Ask them Gold Star mothers what they paid and what they got for it. You always pay too much. Particularly for promises."
"You know that Gospel song? We'll understand it all by and by? That takes a lot of faith. You think about him goin over there and dyin in a ditch somewheres. Seventeen year old. You tell me. Because I damn sure dont know."
"This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it."
The novel is about much more than just the violence. It is about those decisions in life that do alter a lifepath, and not always huge ones like whether or not to keep a couple of million dollars of obviously illegal money. As Chigurh himself says, "Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased....A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning." Chigurh uses this reasoning to excuse himself as a tool of pre-ordained destiny in killing people. Certainly, every moment is a turning and a choosing, and looking back one cannot erase lines, but paths are not predetermined, they only seem to be in hindsight and the straight-line projection of history when one forgets the forks that were faced. This, in a sense, is the realization that Sheriff Bell comes to as he considers his life, his past actions, and his desire to change where he is in life.
This is also a novel about changes in society that lead to an unraveling of cohesion, of shared values, of broadly shared goals, of increasing division socially and politically, about vastly increased scopes for violence. Chigurh is the extreme model: a man who kills with no more compassion that one would have for swatting a mosquito, but who is even more dangerous for having constructed what he believes is a valid belief system. Moss is essentially a good man and a tough and resourceful guy, but he makes a serious mistake in taking the money and in thinking that he can deal with the subsequent pressures, not even being aware of the ripple effects on the lives of others. Sheriff Bell is a man who harbours guilt because people believe him to be better than he thinks he has been, and who realizes that he is simply not up to the task, that this world of ultra and gratuitous violence and death is way beyond him. Bell is the only character who actually changes; all the others remain as they were, or die; but Bell, strongly supported by the love and companionship of his wife, does finally take that fork that will let him live a quieter and more peaceful life.
Behind this narrative, however, there is an exploration of loss, of age, decay (physical and moral), and the betrayal represented by the American Dream, gradually become a nightmare.
Terrible events are described in simple and sparse prose, it almost acted as a buffer, like watching the action through the eyes of a child - who doesn't entirely understand what's happening. This made me feel such empathy for several of the characters that I turned each page nearly dreading what I would read next.
Then there's the depth of characterisation, and the deeper questions about free will versus determinism, and the nature of good and evil.
Anton Moss, a welder and ex-Vietnam vet, is out hunting antelope in the arid scrub near Rio Grande when he stumbles into the aftermath of a gun battle in which the members of a drug convey have been slaughtered. And then he finds a suitcase with a cool $2.4 million inside.
Soon he is a fugitive fleeing from the hired gun, sent to retrieve the money, an icy-cold psychopath called Anton Chigurh (the name rhymes with "Sugar" ironically) who has a perverted sense of moral justice, a real angel of death who models himself on God. Chigurh decides the fate of his victims with a flick of a coin and calmly dispatches them with a stungun of the sort used in slaughter houses.
And then there's Bell, a small town sheriff struggling to do the duty he is entrusted with in a world that seems to be changing steadily for the worse. He is also doing his best to track Moss down before it's too late. The narrative of the novel alternates between omniscience and chapters where Bell is given free-reign to talk about his own history and philosophy of life in monologues that read like something from Studs Terkel's classic oral histories. Bell is a good man but he doesn't really have his finger on why the world is going to hell in a hand basket, even though he can see that it is.
To complicate matters, a special forces agent employed by a powerful cartel is also hot on Moss' trail. And there's Moss' young wife, who also needs to do a runner with her dying mother to avoid being picked off by Chigurh.
Although The Road was probably the most powerful novel I've read this year, I think this novel is far better from the technical point of view. And although McCarthy's use of punctuation is every bit as eccentric here, it seems to fit with the way the Texan dialect is written and doesn't grate as it does in The Road. (I did though sometimes get lost in dialogues, since there is no indication of who is speaking.) And thankfully, there are fewer choppy sentence fragments of the kind that had me gritting my teeth.
The plot is almost an afterthought - quiet vet Llewelyn Moss, hunting in the plains on the Texas-Mexico border comes across a couple trucks, several dead men, blocks of heroin, and 2.4 million in cash. Moss takes the money, and from there it is a bloody chase across Texas and Mexico as psycho-killers, Mexican drug dealers, and a determined sheriff follow Moss for their own reasons. McCarthy's writing is brief but poetic - it takes a few pages to get used to his unique writing style but once you're there the story moves at break-neck speed until its all-too-abrupt conclusion. Sheriff Bell, the narrator/voice of reason in the book contemplates that this new world he's seeing is indeed No Country for Old Men, and perhaps the evil apparent in killer Anton Chigurh is an evil we may all be destined for if the world continues to dip and sway on the tip of its own modernity.
For anyone who has not yet read McCarthy, this is supposedly his most accessible book ,and might serve as a great starting place before dipping into heavier fare such as All the Pretty Horses, Suttree, or Blood Meridian. The Coen Brothers are also currently adapting this book to be their next feature film, which sounds fantastic, since in many ways the themes here echo FARGO and, to a lesser extent, BLOOD SIMPLE. Great book, A-.
The first 240 pages (roughly) read like a great thriller in which McCarthy artfully builds up the tension. He carefully stokes the reader's expectations, sweeping one along towards what must surely be a climactic showdown between good and evil. But then McCarthy deliberately smashes it all up. After so many pages of buildup, carefully building the tension and anticipation, he cuts straight from the buildup to approximately 60 pages of anti-climax.
This will leave some readers feeling that they've been misled or tricked. For McCarthy exploits the formulas of this genre to feed the expectation of a classic 'good vs. evil' confrontation. There's the bad-a$# special forces guy (Wells), the hardworking 'nam vet (Moss), the virtuous old sheriff (Bell, a member of the 'Greatest Generation'). But none of these guys get to face off against the arch villain in any satisfying way. They're all cast aside, shown up as being no match for the great evil, the man without a history, Anton Chigurh, who sweeps past them like they're just so many yapping dogs. The climactic fight between good and evil never happens.
The author's message is one of hopelessness and desolation. By the end, all the Sheriff can feel is defeat. There's a Biblical allusion in the penultimate sentence, where Bell dreams of his father making a fire "out there in all that dark and all that cold." I think this alludes to a line in the gospel of John (ch. 1, v. 5: "The light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not"). However, this image of hope is crumpled up and discarded by McCarthy. It's just an illusion, part of a dream from which Bell wakes up.
I've heard some people complain that McCarthy is too 'preachy' in this novel, but that's true only if you identify his views with those of Bell. Bell keeps criticizing the times he's living in, contrasting Texas in 1980 unfavourably with how things used to be. However, I don't take McCarthy to share that outlook; if anything, he subverts it with his references to past wars. E.g., Moss and Wells are Vietnam vets and Bell is a WWII vet. While talking to his uncle near the end of the book, Bell discusses a deceased relative who fought in WWI, and another relative who fought against, and was killed by, native Indians in the previous century. There's also a mention in that conversation of 'Coffee Jack', a 19th-Century Texas Ranger who fought against the Indians and the Mexicans. Indeed, that old war against the Mexicans seems to have continued in the form of the drug wars. Earlier in the book, another sheriff tells Bell that he'd just as soon give all this land back to the Mexicans.
In terms of the plot, there's no need for all these references to past wars. McCarthy throws them in to undermine Bell's nostalgia, the point being that violence and destruction are the way of the world, and that's how it's always been.
I gave the book three stars because I don't see anything profound or interesting in this message.
Third person narrator alternating with Sheriff Bell's first person reflections in italics. McCarthy's style throws dialogue and prose together without punctuation. This removes the need for speech tags and gives an immediacy to the story. The voices of the three protagonists are clearly distinguishable and the psychopathic villain Chigurh is worrying enough to keep the reader awake at night. Even though I knew the plot from the film, I was still stunned by McCarthy's summary and effective dismissal of two key characters. The horror and pressure tails off a bit at the end, which loses the fifth star for me, but in another way I was glad that cooling off phase was there to bring me down from the horror of Chigurh.
Well. No Country for Old Men turns out not to follow that formula. (McCarthy cleverly sets up at least three different plot formulas and torpedoes all of them.) Every sympathetic character is either dead or existentially defeated by the end of the novel. Several unsympathetic characters meet the same fate. Everybody falls prey to a mythic "most invincible man," and at the end this novel says a lot about how our lives are shaped by the cruel hand of chance. You wouldn't be too far off thinking of this novel as a modern, bloody retelling of Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy.
The movie is EXTREMELY faithful too the book. However, the way in which the source material hampers the movie is the way in which it enables the book to excel. Yes, the ending is ambiguous and odd and perplexing. Cormac McCarthy does ambiguous, odd, and perplexing better than any other living American writer.
Should you read this book before watching the movie? Definitely. There's no question. The plot is simultaneously straightforward and convoluted; watching the movie will probably ruin a lot of the surprises for you. However, the movie itself is a very different beast. It works or doesn't work on different terms than the book does. The book has a different symbolic impact than the movie; the form and organization of the book sees to that. The sherrif's monologues spotted among the third-person chapters help to create an effect which is less-clearly articulated in the movie.
So. Read this. I have not read all of Cormac McCarthy but if you read any of his at all I'm willing to suggest that you'll adore this one.