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.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road charts the journey of a nameless man and a nameless boy south through a post-apocalyptic America. They have nothing but each other and a cart of supplies. There is little food available. Nothing grows any more. The trees are leafless and ash covers the ground. The story is set years after some devastating event that turned the country into a charred ruin, presumably a nuclear war. The two protagonists are journeying south to escape the cold of the approaching winter, doing their best to avoid encounters with any “bad guys” (as the man calls them when speaking to the boy). In a world with nothing but canned food in ever diminishing supply, it’s not surprising that some might turn to cannibalism. The names of characters are never mentioned, I would guess, because in a world with so few people, names become meaningless. Likewise the names of the roads on which they travel have ceased to have meaning; there is only The Road.

You could be forgiven for skipping this novel on account of the bleak storyline. But nothing could be further from the truth. The novel shows the reader a world where on the surface of things there is nothing to live for – where you would either kill yourself or long for death. But the man’s entire life is transformed by the simple fact that he must take care of the boy. This is a story about where true meaning in life resides, when you strip away all the comforts and distractions of our lives: in the love one person has for another human being. It’s such a simple story: a long journey interspersed with occasional dramatic encounters. But it’s an absolute page-turner, because it’s meaningful, realistic, uncompromising.

The fact that it’s hard to put down may also have something to do with the strange style in which the book is written. There are no chapter divisions at all, but a great many scene divisions throughout the book. Many scenes consists of only two or three paragraphs. Rarely do they exceed two pages. This brevity, oddly enough, works quite well, and has the effect of making the reader think “Just a bit more before a put it down.” Then, before you know it, you’ve read another twenty pages.

The author has decided to rewrite the rules of English grammar and punctuation for himself. If McCarthy were a self-published author, I would be balking at such arrogance. But since he’s an accomplished author, and since I enjoyed the novel so much, I’m forced to pause and examine the matter closely. I always read with a critical eye, so here’s a list of all the things I saw McCarthy doing a little differently:

  • There are no quotation marks. Speech is rendered indistinguishable from narration, like this: Let’s go, he said. All things considered, it was fairly easy to distinguish the two.
  • Commas are in short supply. This decision did cause me a bit of grief. Occasionally I got mixed up in the meaning of a sentence and had to re-read it.
  • Several clauses in a sentence are often joined with multiple “and”s, in a manner that seems quite childlike, which is bizarre because McCarthy demonstrates a rich vocabulary that puts me to shame.
  • There are no italics. Fair enough; not exactly a necessity.
  • Apostrophes are removed from words like “can’t,” but are retained for words like “he’d.” McCarthy seems to have decided that when two words are joined together (“he had”), you keep the apostrophe, but when one one (“not”) is concatenated (“nt), you remove it. Struck me as an unnecessary amendment to the English language.
  • Hyphenated words are usually rendered without the hyphen.
  • “He” does not usually refer to the last mentioned subject, but to the man, as opposed to the boy, regardless of whether the boy was last mentioned.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I get the feeling that perhaps the author is attempting to convey a style similar to oral storytelling; you can’t speak a quotation mark, so why write one? The idea has some merit, and I’m actually curious about attempting to write something in a similar style. I appreciated some of McCarthy’s changes, but others irritated me and made the prose awkward to read. There was also a limited degree of sloppy inconsistency going on. More than once, I spotted a sentence like Come on he said, where McCarthy left out a comma in a circumstance where he always used one. Also, about halfway through the story, in a the middle of a paragraph, I encountered a nonsensical sentence that began with a small letter. It was as if someone had accidentally highlighted the first half of a sentence and deleted it by accident. Don’t publishers proof-read their books before publication? Shame on you, Picador.

Enough criticism. I’m overlooking McCarthy’s oddball English, because this is an excellent novel. Thoroughly recommended.