At one point in Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, sheriff Tom Bell makes a comparison between the results of a survey issued to teachers in the 1950s and the same survey issued at the turn of the century. Talking and chewing gum in class and shooting spitballs among the prime offences fifty years ago, they were replaced with rape, suicide, arson, and vandalism in the modern generation. While the notion an apocalypse is nigh may be extreme, there is no denying the increased prevalence of vice and violence in the years since. Using the Mexican drug trade as a backdrop, No Country for Old Men highlights this contrast in a story that is the envy of any crime novelist on the market.
Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope on the empty Texas plains one afternoon when he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. Dead bodies and heroin lying everywhere, he finds a briefcase with millions of dollars and heads home. But his conscience nags at him. One of the men in the vehicles gasping for air but alive when he left, Moss makes the fateful decision to return in the middle of the night to bring water and see if the man is still alive. But other dealers have arrived on the scene to hide the mess and recover the goods when Moss arrives. And he barely escapes. Forced to leave his truck behind, the dealers have a means of finding his name and address. Little does Moss know but it is the psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurgh who is put on his trail to recover the money at all costs. Staying alive, let alone with the money, becomes anything but a foregone conclusion for Moss.
Playing a major role in the novel (an echo wall for Moss’s tale, in fact) is Sheriif Tom Bell. Sheriff in the Texas county where most of the action takes place, he takes a slow, measured, and fatalistic approach to everything he does tracking and finding the men involved in the bad drug deal. “I don’t know...” his most commonly uttered phrase, the blood and violence left in the wake of Chigurh’s pursuit of Moss is something frightful yet well within the plausibility of modern-day newspaper headlines, and leaves Bell as the voice of reason, or at least traditional American culture which stands in awe of the extremes society has evolved into the past half-century. The complete disregard for human life Chigugh and the drug cartels represent shocking him to the point of near speechlessness, he goes about his job as professionally as possible, attempting to care for the innocent involved and offering protection as required, but feels he can do nothing to stop them—one man in the face of unstoppable wave.
And it is through Bell that McCarthy spreads his black blanket of doubt regarding the direction of American culture. Heavily nihilistic, McCarthy does not wax nostalgic using golden images of America yesteryear to represent how good it was, rather he uses headlines from its present-day news programs to propel his ideas. Real-world media from the Mexican border indeed often appalling, the success of McCarthy’s larger aims will depend largely on how much the reader buys into the doom and gloom, and perhaps, to a larger degree, the context of age. If all one knows is cell phones and ‘reality tv’, then the novel may not strike a chord, as indeed the story, as indicated by the title, may just be a reflection of the ageing McCarthy’s own worldviews. Any underlying reality will be up to the reader.
In the end, if McCarthy’s earlier novel Blood Meridian can be called a metaphor, then No Country for Old Men is a representation of the metaphor. Exploring very similar thematic material yet in the vehicle of a superb crime drama, the ideas click into place through a stronger focus on plotting and characters should be the envy of more mainstream writers. Much like McCarthy’s screenplay for the film The Counselor in agenda but entirely different in plot, a scene is set wherein life and death hold no meaning for the people involved in the top end of the narcotics trade. Murder and assassinations just business as usual, they don’t care who gets in the way, respect for decency lost in favor of profits and greed.
*Note: I can’t help but comment on the movie adaption of No Country for Old Men. It’s superb. In fact, I cannot think of a film adaptation that is more faithful. The Coen brothers went so far as to include little details, like hand and eye movements, sitting postures, and mumblings, let alone the dialogue which is often taken line for line. There are only a handful of scenes that are either altered slightly or removed (the ending is the most streamlined), the rest is a 1:1 adaptation that nails everything, from mood to theme, character to pace. Great book, great film. I wish Hollywood were more often as respectful of its source material.