No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

A man called Moss is out hunting deer in the outback when, through his binoculars, he spots of two parked SUVs and what looks like several bodies scattered on the ground. Further investigation yields a trunkload of heroin and over two million dollars in cash. With everyone dead, Moss decides to take the money and run. But before he can get away properly, his own truck is spotted by some bad men who have arrived – clearly to see what went wrong with the trade. Moss’s licence plate is now known to them, and he’s smart enough to realise that come Monday morning, when the court house opens, it’ll be a small step for these men to find out all about him. He’s already taken the money, so there’s no going back … and it has cost him his identity. Moss now has to go on the run, with two different sets of bad guys and the police trying to track him town. But the worst threat comes from one other man, Chigurh, a psychopath with an agenda all his own.

No Country for Old Men starts strong and has all the makings of a fantastic thriller. In fact, it is a fantastic thriller, for about two thirds of its length. It’s fast-paced, engaging, and inventive. McCarthy demonstrates a particular skill at dialogue; I was riveted by many of the conversations that took place in the novel. But something goes wrong in the latter part of the novel. It starts when the reader begins a chapter to find that one of the principal characters has been murdered off-stage. The effect is so jarring that I had to flip back to make sure I hadn’t skipped a chapter. Other characters are simply talking about the death, and the reader is left to put two and two together. I understand that a writer is free to pull a stunt like this for “special effect” purposes, but here it simply broke the flow of the story; what had been, up to this point, linear and straightforward, became like a jumping record. Towards the end, the novel is written almost in a flash fiction style. In one paragraph, the sheriff asks the location of someone, and in the next, he’s addressing the person he was looking for, suddenly transported, as if by teleport, without so much as a scene division. In the latter part of the novel, McCarthy seems preoccupied with making a point about American culture and is prepared to put the “thriller” side of the story firmly in second place, to the detriment of the novel as a whole.

The message that McCarthy injects into the novel is that the moral fibre of America has gotten progressively worse and worse and is now beyond the point of recovery. Depressing stuff. I don’t live in the USA, but I have a much more positive outlook on humanity than that. Since I couldn’t appreciate McCarthy’s subtext, there was nothing I could do but judge the novel on its entertainment value. And I just wish McCarthy had plotted the final stretch of the story better, instead of leaving us high and dry, because the novel had so much going for it.

When I read McCarthy’s The Road (one of my favourite reads of 2007), I thought that his oddball punctuation wouldn’t work in a novel that had lots of characters and varied situations. But it turns out that No Country for Old Men is written in just the same style. And it still works, up to a point. The same problems arise that are present in The Road.

To sum up: No Country for Old Men is an excellent read, with some disappointing flaws.

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4 thoughts on “No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

  1. PRAEst76 says:

    I’ve found this problem with numerous novels. You can spot the point that the writer started to lose patience with the project. Or his editor did.

  2. CAROL says:

    I just returned from the movie “No Country for old Men”. I had just read the book before I went. I only went to see if there was more info on the hunt and on MOSS. WAS I Displeased? Comac McCarthy what happen to your story? It changed and why? It was an awful movie. The runaway girl was not in the movie and really the Sheriff’s story does not go into detail enough for the viewer to understand. My husband is still trying to piece it together. Shame on me for buying a very bad book. I can over looked his bad grammer, but a short flash fiction began third of way through.

  3. Dean Rader says:

    I’m curious why so many folks find the novel depressing. To me, The Road and No Country (both the film and the book) really fall in line with the whole tradition of American Realism and Naturalism, going all the way back to the Civil War.

    What’s surprising is how popular these books are, given that so many find them . . .pessimistic. I actually write about this in my post yesterday. You can check it out here:
    http://weeklyrader.blogspot.com/2008/01/extolling-mccarthy.html

  4. Darryl Sloan says:

    It’s depressing because the author’s subtext is that America has fallen so far morally that it is beyond the point of ever recovering.

    Is it true? I don’t know. I’m not an American, so I’m not the best to comment on this issue, but it’s certainly not something I feel about society from the point of view of living in Ireland.

    I felt The Road was a better read. Even though it was about a world that was destroyed beyond the brink of recovery, the story was also about love and selfless devotion at all costs.

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