No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Vintage International, 2005. 320 pp)
Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933. One of six children, Cormac’s family moved multiple times in his childhood as his father accepted different occupations. In 1951, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee majoring in Liberal Arts. Midway through his studies, McCarthy served in the Air Force for four years. After his service, McCarthy returned to college writing his first short stories. In 1959 and 1960, he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for Creative Writing. Mccarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Several years, grants, and fellowships later, McCarthy published Suttree, Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses marking his rise in literary acclaim. McCarthy is widely considered one of the great modern American authors and many of his works have been translated to film.
Who Actually Lives Happily Ever After?
It seems to me that there is a need for redemption engrained into humans as they encounter a story. If the narrative does not conclude with a “they lived happily ever after” motif, viewers leave unsettled and more than likely not enjoying the story. Redemption is a powerful motif; nothing pulls the heart-strings better than a down-on-her-luck character figuring it out and finding happiness. In my mind, however, life does not always resemble these idealized redemptive stories. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people; sometimes, good things happen to bad people. In McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the narrative follows this motif with disquieting results.
No Country for Old Men details the intertwining movements of three characters: Llewelyn Moss, a law-abiding Vietnam veteran; Ed Tom Bell, a small-town sheriff; and Anton Chigurh, a sociopathic killer for hire. While hunting in the Mexico-Texas border country, Llewelyn Moss happens upon the aftermath of a drug-runner shootout and finds a bag containing over 2 million dollars. By taking the cash, Moss thrusts himself into the crosshairs of the ruthless murdering spree of Anton Chigurh.
The Mind of a Killer
Chigurh’s character is the most chilling human depiction I have ever read. First, every scene Chigurh enters results in death and destruction. Second, Chigurh carries no emotion and allows “fate” or “destiny” to make his decisions. He often allows a coin-flip to decide the fate of his victims.
“Chigurh took a twenty-five cent piece from his pocket and flipped it spinning into the bluish glare of the fluorescent lights overhead. He caught it and slapped it onto the back of his forearm just above the bloody wrappings. Call it, he said.”“Call it?”“Yes.”“For what?”“Just call it.”“Well I need to know what it is we’re callin here.“How would that change anything?”“The man looked at Chigurh’s eyes for the first time. Blue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones. You need to call it, Chigurh said. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t even be right. Just call it” (55-56).
|A Scene from No Country for Old Men/Miramx Films|
Not only does Chigurh place the life of his victim in a coin-flip, he also uses a cattle gun as a unique execution device. Such a chilling account raises an interesting philosophical question. Is McCarthy’s representation of a serial killer considered art? On one hand, his finely crafted character represents everything that is evil with the world. Yet, on the other hand, is such a vivid representation of malevolence and nihilism prone to creating copy-cats? I remember hearing a story about a movie that accurately depicted the cracking of a bank safe. Weeks after its release, an uptick in bank robberies occurred. Should we view art differently if it affects real life? While I have not heard stories about mass-murderers mimicking Anton Chigurh, the possibility of such an occurrence frightens me.
A Sliver of Hope
In between Moss and Chigurh resides Sheriff Bell, the man charged with hunting down Chigurh and protecting Moss. As bodies pile up, Bell struggles with the toll of such dark circumstances. Nevertheless, he carries the slightest sliver of hope.
“People complain about the bad things that happen to em that they don’t deserve but they seldom mention the good. About what they done to deserve them things. I don’t recall that I ever give the good Lord all that much cause to smile on me. But he did” (91).
McCarthy’s dense and precise writing implies the gravity of the novel. The themes sit with you long after the last page turns. Not much redemption exists within the text of No Country for Old Men but redemption is not the point of the book. Dark, dreary, and depressing things happen in the world and Cormac McCarthy documents these happenings well in the novel. In fact, a happy ending in this novel betrays the premise of the book. Life is tough and the good guy does not always win. However, life goes on. No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece worth reading.