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.