Taylor's Reviews > No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
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Right off the bat I have to say this is a book that I'm not so sure I can do enough justice to in my review. There are so many themes and subtleties here (this is another book as much about what isn't said/done as what is), and I'm not sure that I've entirely digested all of them. A lot of the "professional" reviews tie some of the themes to the Bible, and having little knowledge of the Bible, there's a chance I'm missing out on some things. That said, even without that knowledge, this book still has a lot to say, and I have no qualms interpreting it without the Bible tie-in. I just wanted to mention this. Now, on with it.

I actually went into this book anticipating not to like it. Most of what I'd heard about this book and/or McCarthy in general (this is the first of his I've read) is that he's very violent - which doesn't necessarily turn me off, but doesn't especially attract me, either - and that his writing style is very bleak and generally depressing. While I don't mind depressing (within reason/some situations), bleak is another matter. Bleak writing styles are, more often than not, entirely not my thing. A bleak writing style tends to be what I cannot tolerate most (see: Heart of Darkness).

Much to my delight, this book takes up one of my favorite debates in modern pop culture (and beyond, but especially recent works): good vs. bad/evil, in particular how anachronistic/ambiguous these terms are, particularly in modern times. A lot of my favorite artistic output within the last 5 years touches on this in some way ("Nip/Tuck" comes to mind, as does HBO's ROME, which doesn't take up the modern times bit so much, obviously, but I digress), so I have to cop to a lot of personal interest in this theme in particular, which obviously has a lot to do with my affinity for this book. (But, honestly, it's a theme that everyone should ruminate on, which is why I like work that addresses it.)

The plot is basically set up in the first few pages. While out hunting, Llelwyn Moss stumbles across the scene of a botched drug deal: three trucks, several dead dudes, one alive (but injured) one, a ton of drugs, and a leather case filled with 2.4 million dollars. He takes the money, but being as 2.4 million dollars is a lot of money - particularly as this is set in the '80s, so allow for inflation - Moss becomes the hunted, on the run from the assorted people who'd like that money, in particular Anton Chigurh, a hired hit man who's frighteningly good at his job. The botched drug deal takes place in the county under the supervision of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who prides himself on having no unsolved homocides. He wants to continue his streak - and, as we later find, wants to atone for sins he felt he committed in Vietnam. After it's set up, it whizzes by, and is therefore incredibly suspenseful and hard to put down.

Instead of taking the approach that a lot of works do when addressing this theme - where none of the characters are inherently good or bad - McCarthy has people who represent standard views of "good" and "bad." Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is clearly representative of "good." He's constantly bemoaning the downfall of culture, sounding like an angry grandfather when he rants about kids with green hair, how things went to hell when manners left day-to-day interaction, generally espousing what I imagine are the average right wing voter's morals/standards/views on life. He struggles with his place in a world mere steps from Hell as he sees it, a world with crooked cops and vicious, seemingly unstoppable killers like Mr. Chigurh. Chigurh, naturally, represents a standard view of "bad." He's a ruthless killer, generally referred to as a sociopath, seemingly robotic and without much care or concern for those he kills outside of how they fit into his plan. Moss seems to represent the in-between, a generally "good" person who makes a few bad/stupid mistakes.

Ultimately, Bell "fails" (I'm not going to say how/why/in reference to what), and he makes for an interesting case of the subjectiveness of good/bad, when he finally details what happened in Vietnam, which he alludes to throughout the book. He tells the story to his Uncle - the only person he tells, he doesn't even tell his wife, who he constantly praises as though she's God herself - and his Uncle basically says that he doesn't think it's so bad and that Bell is giving himself too much flak for it. Bell makes it clear that he's judging his own actions and how he feels about them in relation to his father, who he thinks would've done the "right" thing.

Chigurh, on the other hand, when abstracted from the standard "good/bad" particulars of his career/job/morals, is a man who is completely devoted to those things. Yes, he kills a lot of people - but it's his job and his morals, and he never deviates from them. He's always working (partly because he kind of has to be, but I'd imagine that even if he didn't, he would be). Change his career from a hit man to a lawyer and his method of killing people from a cattlegun/shot gun to an electric chair, and he'd be revered. He upholds promises to other people, even the dead, and to himself, and again, if you remove the particulars of those things, they'd be considered "good" qualities. The only time he allows for a possible deviation is when prompted by a coin toss (Two-Face, anyone??), which he feels is an instrument of justice, hope, power - all sorts of things. (Note: the coin tosses are, without a doubt, my favorite parts in this book, both in relation to its themes, the plot, and the writing.)

While Moss is the most ambiguous character in conventional "good/bad" terms, the interesting thing is that what sets him on a difficult path are actions that are stereotypically "good." First example: while stealing the money wasn't smart, what really, truly sets him off on the hunt is the fact that he leaves the injured Mexican alive. Discounting the Mexican, no one is around when he takes the money, so had he killed him (a "bad" thing to do, but in this case, smarter and a better move for Moss personally), it's likely he would've had stronger odds initially. But, because he not only leaves the Mexican alive, but then makes the self-acknowledged idiotic mistake of going back to bring him water (the Mexican guy can't speak English and only mutters for "agua") hours later, the chase begins immediately: while he's down at the scene of the crime, where he discovers (surprise! not!) that the Mexican man has been shot, his truck is stolen by his pursuers and they use it to chase him down and find out his particulars. (Chigurh - and later, another hitman, Wells - finds people very easily and probably would have figured Moss out eventually, but it's this moment/action that technically starts the chase.) Second example: when Moss sees the pictures Wells gives him of an old woman who died when hit by a stray bullet from a shoot-out that Moss was involved in, that's what ultimately prompts Moss - likely out of guilt - to call Wells, which ends up being the first and last time he talks to Chigurh. During this phone call, something that's bad on a personal level for Moss happens, and it could've possibly been avoided had he not made the call. Third example: Moss picks up a young hitch-hiker. I can't say much on this without giving anything away, but he makes himself more vulnerable by doing so.

The only reason I'm giving this four starts instead of five is the ending. I honestly don't know what would have made the ending better, but I was a little let down by it. It feels over-written, only because his writing is so sparse for the rest of the book. Perhaps if he had ended it more succinctly, although I suppose most of the information is relevant and important to consider. The more I think about it, the more I'm okay with it, only because I can't think of a "better" ending myself, but it just felt off to me.

There's so much more I want to say on this, but I'm mentally exhausted just from writing this much, so I'll finish this up by simply saying: read this! (Fair warning: I may have more to add later, or when I see the movie.)

Edit: In the next couple days, I'd also like to read the poem the title is from and ruminate on its possible connection to the book, when I have some time of focus on it some more.

Edit: After seeing the movie, I realize how strong the book is. I gets bumped up from 4 to 5. (I'm still not sold on the ending, so if I could I'd give it 4.5, but for how much I've been thinking about it, it gets rounded up.) The movie was really good - but the book is just so, SO good.
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Reading Progress

05/10/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Ophelia (new) - added it

Ophelia Hello Taylor,

I'm new to Goodread, and I haven't built my shelves yet.

I'm reading "No Country for Old Men" at the moment, and I read your review with great interest.

I am finding it difficult to get past the first few pages right now, and reviews like yours give me reasons to persevere.

Do you have an idea why McCarthy set the novel in the 1980's instead of, say, 2004?

And you said you might write more about the book: if you do, I'd like to read it.

Regards,

Ophelia


message 2: by Taylor (last edited Mar 17, 2008 09:44AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Taylor Hi Ophelia!

It's absolutely worth pushing through. I wasn't entirely riveted right away, but once the plot is kind of set in motion, you might find it hard to put down. I did, at least.

As for the time difference, that's a really good question that I hadn't considered. Maybe because the lines of good and bad are so much more blurred now than they were in the '80s? I would guess that it had to do with Ed Tom Bell and his frustration with modern times. Violence has grown so much greater now with more and more acts of terrorism, both outside and domestic (school shootings, for example), that one guy who kills a handful of people might not seem as awful in comparison. Also, in modern times, he probably would've adjusted to all of this much more quickly, I think. The drug trade and crooked cops, all of the things that he complains about... I'm not saying a cop in the '80s wouldn't have seen some awful stuff, but I bet cops have seen a lot worse now. Or maybe all of this is a lot more plausible to put it in the '80s. In modern times, they probably could've tracked Chigurh's car, everyone would've had cell phones that they could track... there's a lot more technology that might have made this story end sooner in modern times.


message 3: by Ophelia (new) - added it

Ophelia Hello Taylor,

Thanks a lot for answering my note.
Your comments have made me think-- I needed thinking because my online discussion group was going to discuss "No Country for old Men" soon, and it's actually started sooner than I thought.

Also I'm leading the discussion.

I've asked a question about time--1980, and one of our readers has already begun answering.

I hope you will feel like having a look at this discussion-- the site is BOOKTALK.ORG- I'd like to discuss this book further with you.


message 4: by Duc (new) - added it

Duc I see this book from a perspective of Chance and choice.


Taylor Chance does play a role - but I think the moments that were decided by chance were ultimately set in motion by choice.


message 6: by Duc (new) - added it

Duc I would agree that choice set in motion. I also see Anton as a God because he gives choices to the characters.


message 7: by s.p (new) - rated it 4 stars

s.p Wow, fantastic review!


Caravaggio I've just finished reading this book, then immediately re-read it in a (for me) record two day period.
I read The Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian a good few years ago, and The Road last year. I have to say I thought it was wonderful and touched me in many ways. I'm a firm believer that certain books are meant to be read at certain times in your life. When I first read McCarthy I'd read some Faulkner and heard that the two were similar. I'm not sure I'm wise enough to comment on that. Anyway returning to my point about reading books at a certain "right" time, this one caught me smack in the perFect moment. Much of what I got from the book came from Ed Tom Bell, and Anton Chigurh's kind of philosophical musings, there are many absolute truths utter between the pages of No Country For Old Men, and its given me a great deal to think about as I approach my 50's.

Guess I'm just a sentimental old fart at heart.

Anyway I implore anyone with an interest to pursue this book. The film is also excellent and very closely follows the novel, but read it first.

Ps
A note about McCarthys limited use of punctuation.
I love this aspect of his writing, for me it makes it flow even better, I know he mentioned in an interview that he didn't like to clutter the page with little marks, Jose Saramago uses a similar style, though he doesn't even start a new line for each piece of dialogue, and he is one of my all time favourite writers, if you can live with Saramago, McCarthy's a breeze


Benjamin Dancer Thanks for this. I just read that McCarthy himself felt a bit insecure about the unconventional ending. Because the end was so jarring that way, it put the focus for me back on Sheriff Bell. We weren't even there when Moss died!


Taylor Benjamin wrote: "Thanks for this. I just read that McCarthy himself felt a bit insecure about the unconventional ending. Because the end was so jarring that way, it put the focus for me back on Sheriff Bell..."

I wrote this review quite awhile ago now, and I think since then I've made peace with the ending, and it doesn't bother me as much as it did initially. At the very least, it doesn't take away from the book overall for me.


Benjamin Dancer It must have taken a lot of guts for McCarthy to do something that unconventional. I think a lot of people had a hard time with it.


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