For its ambitious scope, the grace and beauty of its language and its compelling storytelling, Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy - All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain - was a major literary achievement in American letters in the latter part of the 20th century. It rivaled the best work of the best generation of American novelists: Faulkner, Wolfe, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. McCarthy devotees have waited seven years since the trilogy’s final installment for a new novel. (The author received the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for All the Pretty Horses.) As often happens when we anticipate something too eagerly, McCarthy’s new novel is likely to disappoint some longtime fans. How new readers will react to it is more difficult to forecast.
McCarthy’s ninth novel in a 40-year career, No Country for Old Men is set in the recent past in Texas and Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. The novel follows three men: Llewelyn Moss, Anton Chigurh and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. While hunting antelope one afternoon, Moss comes upon what looks like a drug deal gone terribly awry. Two men are dead, a third badly injured, and Moss discovers a large cache of heroin and a document case containing $2 million. Moss plots to keep the money, while Chigurh is determined to recover it. Bell wants to protect Moss while preventing a potentially violent crime spree.
McCarthy demands much of readers. For instance, he does not use quotation marks with dialogue, and speakers frequently are not identified, which sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to follow. The author’s flair for dialogue, however, is one reason it is a joy to read him. Consider the language’s wonderfully mesmerizing rhythms in a three-page scene when Chigurh encounters a convenience store proprietor. Chigurh asks the man:
What’s the most money you ever saw lost in a coin toss?
I said what’s the most money you ever saw lost in a coin toss.
The conversation continues in this delightfully absurd vein, with the proprietor not sure why they need to toss a coin nor for what they are betting until its unlikely conclusion, when Chigurh says: Anything can be an instrument. Small things. Things you wouldn’t ever notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don’t pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting.
This observation is uncannily true, and because we know Chigurh kills people the way others swat flies, it is especially effective.
The dialogue in No County for Old Men places the reader on scene, as does McCarthy’s signature use of the conjunction and. A scene in which an arrested Chigurh escapes a deputy offers a good example: Then he [Chigurh] picked up his airtank and the stungun and walked out the door and got into the deputy’s car and started the engine and backed around and pulled out and headed up the road. The use of and plants the reader firmly amid the action, making the moment’s energy palpable; simple actions, taken for granted, assume a significance not readily seen.
Once situated in McCarthy’s world, the reader becomes immersed in his elegantly spare prose. After being shot, Moss escapes Chigurh into Piedras Negras, Mexico, looking for help. McCarthy describes it: No sun. Just the gray light breaking. The streets wet. The shops closed. Iron shutters. An old man was coming along pushing a broom. He paused. Then moved on. We see as clearly as Moss does, and a little evokes much: a transient yet essentially human moment as two strangers pass.
Four-fifths of No Country for Old Men shows McCarthy as a master storyteller in command of his considerable gifts. Then the novel abruptly, inexplicably turns its attention away from Chigurh and Moss toward Bella shift in focus that diminishes the novel’s power.
Readers have invested in the likely coming violent confrontation between Moss and Chigurh, but learn of it only after the fact and are robbed of the anticipated payoff. A further disappointment is the protracted epilogue, which does not help us fully understand the confrontation’s tragedy. Soon afterward, Bell visits his elderly Uncle Ellis; the reader is initially puzzled by the introduction of a new character well into the narrative. Through the kind of discursive dialogue for which McCarthy is also known, we learn about the terrible thing Bell did during World War II that helps explain why current events trouble him.
Though it is a good scene, it would have worked better in a longer book with similar scenes, to balance the novel’s otherwise hectic pace. Scenes of Bell’s visit to Moss’s father and his attempt to track Chigurh also promise to add to the reader’s understanding but do not. Our understanding of the tragedy is still wanting as the novel meanders to an unsatisfying conclusion, with Bell contemplating his future in retirement.
Beginning with 1985’s underappreciated Blood Meridian, this is McCarthy’s fifth novel set in the American West, bordering Mexico, and the most flawed of them all. Despite its shortcomings, however, there is enough in No Country for Old Men to admire and recommend new readers to McCarthy’s earlier work. Longtime fans, although perhaps disappointed, will recall that body of work and take heart. Cormac McCarthy is still alive and writing.