26 April 2008

No Country For Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Vintage International 309 pages. ISBN 978-0-307-38713-4

No Country For Old Men starts out with a short stream-of consciousness narrative, as if Sheriff Bell were talking to us, or we could read his thoughts. These italicized segments will be repeated throughout the book, and one will provide its epilogue.

Sheriff Bell, we discover, has been the Sheriff of his county for many years. He is a man who appreciates the peace and simplicity of his own life, and has a strong love for his wife, to whom he has been married for many years. Bell is in many ways a very traditional good American man, who served his country in World War II, and came back home to be a peace officer in the place where he grew up.

Bell is monogamous, not overly religious, and exhibits a calm, pragmatic tolerance of other people who may or may not be much like him. It would have been easy to write more prejudice into this character, to make him a little more of the typical “redneck” small-town sheriff; McCarthy has created a much more complex character here, a man that we will know, recognize, and like. Bell is the man we wish we had directing our local law enforcement, wherever we live.

In the beginning of the book, a man named Moss, out hunting in the desert, comes upon the scene of a grisly multiple murder that's taken place around several abandoned vehicles. There are dead bodies, weapons, and drugs. In one vehicle is a man who has been shot but is not dead, to whom Moss speaks. This man calls Moss cuate (friend, compadre) and asks for agua. Moss has no water, and is too cautious and fascinated to simply go for help at that moment.

Moss follows the tracks of an injured man who crawled away from the scene, and finds him dead, with a bag “level full of hundred dollar bills... His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.”

This money, which Moss takes, drives the story to its end. It is, of course, the proceeds from a drug deal that went horribly wrong. Moss, who we find to be a simple and generally honest man devoted to his young wife is instantly possessed by the spell of lucre, the awesome possibilities that these millions of dollars represent, the vision of freedom from dull and difficult work. He has practically no resistance, although we are given strong hints that he sees the seeds of his own destruction herein. Moss knows full well that he has scant chance of getting away with this treasure, but the reward is just too great for him not to try.

The lure of all that money doesn't completely corrupt Moss. He returns later, in the night, with water for the man in the car, but it is too late. As he runs with the satchel of money he demonstrates that he has not lost his strong set of principles. He is as kind as he can afford to be; he is loyal to his wife.

There are many evil men in this book, but none with evil so pure as Chigurh. Chigurh is presented as a heartless, soulless murderer; he comes into the story by killing a young deputy in a county next to Bell's. As he moves through the story he leaves a trail of victims, some shot to death, some killed with an air-powered hammer designed to slaughter cattle.

Chigurh obviously takes pleasure in killing, but he is not killing solely for pleasure. He seeks the money that Moss has found, hoping that by recovering it he can gain the trust and business of the mysterious drug cartel whose ill-fated transaction in the desert caused the scene that Moss discovered. He represents the coldest of the cold; the murdering reptile brain that thrives in the world of drugs.

Moss runs, and is sought by the drug runners, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. Bell has put the pieces together, and has a reasonably accurate idea of what has transpired. Reason and logic, which serve him in understanding the case, also tell him that Moss is very unlikely to survive. (And what will happen to his wife?) He sets out to find, and rescue him – an impossible task that he cannot refuse to try. Bell's wife asks him: “Do you really care?” To which Bell answers:

Yes mam. I do. The people of Terrell County hired me to look after em... I get paid to be the first one hurt. Killed, for that matter. I'd better care.”
There is a struggle in this book, but even more there is despair. Bell, consulting with his deputy, Torbert, says this about the drug runners:

...I used to say they were the same ones we've always had to deal with. Same ones my grandaddy had to deal with. Back then they was rustlin cattle. Now they're runnin dope. But I don't know as that's true no more. I'm like you. I ain't sure we've seen these people before. Their kind. I dont know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they'd have to build an annex on to hell.”

Bell could be described as a conservative, but that would be an oversimplification. Bell certainly believes in what we might term “traditional” moral values, but he brings his own personality, a sort of horrified acceptance of what is coming to pass, to the discussion. He tells of a discussion with a woman who complains about the “right wing,” and says “I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion.” Bell says:

...I don't have much doubt but what she'll be able to have an abortion. I'm goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she'll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

McCarthy writes much of this book in a vernacular that seems appropriate for the people, and the place, in a way that is easy and pleasant to read. I devoured this book on a rainy Sunday several weeks ago. After a couple of hours I cancelled my plans for the day and read it to the end. I am not sorry for doing that.

This is a skillfully told story, in the tradition of the Western, but addressing one of the major questions of modern civilization: What have we done? We have created this wealthy, technologically enhanced existence (at least for those of us in America, much of Europe, and the rest of the “developed” world), at the expense of decency, community, and perhaps even humanity. Drug addiction, and the soulless criminals that supply the addicts, make up the basis for a profound symptom of the rot growing within our numbers. Again, from Bell:

I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.”

And this:

I think I know where we're headed. We're bein bought with our own money. And it aint just the drugs... Money that can buy whole countries ... it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It's not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was...

...I told a reporter...It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners... It reaches into ever strata...You finally get into the sort of breakdown in mercantile ethics that leaves people settin around out in the desert dead in their vehicles and by then it's just too late.”

By the end of No Country for Old Men I felt very close to Sheriff Bell and his view of the world. I believed in Chigurh and the evil he symbolizes, and I understood the futility of looking at it as a “law enforcement problem.”

Furthermore, I look forward to reading more books by Cormac McCarthy. This was my first.

12,13,24 April 2008

©Eric F. Lester 2008

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