Set at the beginning of the war on drugs and just after the war in Vietnam, Cormac McCarthy’s ninth novel, No Country for Old Men, begins with former army sniper Llewelyn Moss aiming his rifle at a herd of antelope. “He studied the animals through the binoculars. In the compressed air motes and heat distortion. A low haze of shimmering dust and pollen. There was no other cover and there wasnt going to be any other shot.” Fans of McCarthy will wonder about the unfamiliar little dots in this quote. Those are periods fencing off his clauses like so much livestock. Compare Moss to McCarthy’s description in Blood Meridian (1985) of a soldier aiming his rifle more than a century earlier—”With it he killed the little wild pigs of the desert and later when they began to see herds of antelope he would halt in the dusk with the sun off the land and screwing a bipod into the threaded boss on the underside of the barrel would kill these animals where they stood grazing at distance of half a mile”—and you have the difference between a domestic animal and a wild one, between the unbroken landscape of
Blood Meridian and the series of cheap motel rooms in which Moss must hide after finding several vehicles and dead bodies and $2 million in drug money on the plain.
The master of Southwestern gothic has written his first indoor book, breaking his own prose the way John Grady Cole broke colts in
All the Pretty Horses (1992), the broken prose and colts still lovely shadows of their former selves. From Outer Dark (1968), in which a woman impregnated by her brother searches Appalachia for the baby after he abandons it in the woods, to the caves inhabited by the necrophiliac Ballard in
Child of God (1973) to the rowboat in which city dweller Cornelius Suttree floats (Suttree, 1979), the closest any McCarthy character has come to settling down before now is when the aforementioned Cole, in 1998’s
Cities of the Plain (the conclusion of the Border Trilogy), fixes up a house for a Mexican prostitute with whom he’s fallen in love just before she’s slain by her pimp.
Moss has a wife and home, but his decision to take the money and run may cost him both. Chasing him is Anton Chigurh (pronounced “ant on sugar”), a man with whom no one on the planet has ever had a cross word because “they’re all dead.” Breaking into people’s homes and finding out where they’ve gone by reading their phone bill (where characters in McCarthy’s previous novels would follow hoofprints or drop to the ground to backlight figures on the horizon), drinking their milk and putting it back in the fridge, telling a stranger and later Moss’s wife to pick heads or tails on a coin toss to see if they will live or die, Chigurh is terrifying in his banality. Killing people and punching out door locks with a pneumatic stungun meant for killing cattle, he is the drug war’s soulless version of Blood Meridian’s godlike Judge, who kills, conquers, and names everything in his path, save for a petroglyph, which he copies into a book before erasing it. For entertainment, Chigurh “kept the television on and he sat up in the bed watching it and he never changed channels.”
No Country for Old Men takes its title from the first line of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” in which an old man’s death begins his dream trip into the past. The old man here is Sheriff Bell, who’s chasing Moss and Chigurh. Seeing his wife reading the Book of Revelation, Bell asks if it foretells the people with green hair and nose bones now walking around Texas. He wonders if the drug trade has spawned some new kind of man who thinks nothing of killing a cop or a judge, and he cites a poll showing that drugs, rape, and suicide have replaced chewing gum and talking in class as top problems in the public schools. Reading McCarthy, Bell would see that there is nothing new under the sun and that kids on drugs are becoming the men who’ve long roamed the West.
“Brown walls. Same chenille bedspread” may not be the most moving description you’ve ever read of a motel room. But taking No Country as the fourth book in a Border Tetralogy, brown walls are a tragic substitute for the bloodred sun and open air breathed by McCarthy’s other exiles. And while the Judge has no rival for sheer ingenuity—out of ammunition and facing a small army of Apaches, he orders his men to urinate on a pile of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter, then bakes this “devil’s batter” into gunpowder—No Country would make a good manual for anyone trying to perform minor surgery or blow up a car with items from a motel room. Indeed, its most chilling image is of a drug lord’s office furniture in a Houston skyscraper (exotic in McCarthydom as a horse would be in a novel by Nicholson Baker), a breaking of prose to death: “The desk was of polished stainless steel and walnut and there wasn’t anything on it. Not a picture or a piece of paper. Nothing.”