“All the Pretty Corpses,” New Haven Advocate, 15 September 2005
Cormac McCarthy returns with another blood-soaked western.
By Cormac McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf, 309 pp., $24.95
There are nine murders in the first 40 pages of Cormac McCarthy’s new novel. But who dies and how seem afterthoughts in No Country for Old Men, a riff on cowboy westerns and small-town detective noir at once. In McCarthy’s universe, reason and action are divorced, in startling ways. Set in 1980, the story centers upon a murder spree near the Texas-Mexico border. A botched drug deal opens the tale and introduces its reluctant hero, Llewelyn Moss, who stumbles upon the grisly scene while out hunting. Five bodies, a couple heavy bags of heroin and a satchel with $2.4 million dollars are the facts of the case. It’s not Moss’ money, and he knows it.
In the ensuing cat-and-mouse game between Moss and the rightful owners of the cash, McCarthy creates a twisted detective story, in which little is detected and few crimes are solved. The body count grows, and Moss gets more and more tangled in the attempt to save his wife, the money, and his own life. But the plot deals strictly with action, conspicuously ignoring the psychology behind its actors.
The origins of the cash are a perpetual mystery; Chigurh, the novel’s particularly heartless serial killer, arrives in the tale as a suddenly incarnate evil; and Moss and his wife enjoy an understated familiarity that McCarthy lets speak for itself. As Moss prepares to flee: “Do you know what time it is? she said. Yeah. I know what time it is. Baby I dont want you to go. Where are you goin? I dont want you to go. Well darlin we’re eye to eye on that cause I dont want to go neither. I’ll be back. Dont wait up on me.”
Thus, the novel operates in negative space–the skeletal prose offers only the briefest shades of a backstory. Without history, or a context more precise than the sweeping expanse of the continental Southwest, No Country for Old Men speeds along, leaving broken promises and extraordinary violence in its dusty tire-tracks.
The carnage, however, is not extraordinary for an author who seems fixated on the growing numbness of the human spirit toward acts of destruction. Previous novels, including the bestseller-turned-movie All the Pretty Horses, the autobiographical Suttree and the stunning 1985 effort, Blood Meridian, give no credit to sentimentalized visions of death. This newest endeavor stays with the trend.
McCarthy’s plot explodes a myth of detective fiction, that in addition to the criminal there is his opposite, a force of “good” equipped with a karmic belief in justice, or at least resolution. No Country leaves bodies spattered along the border, victims of Chigurh, but also casualties of an idea–that man at his core is a dangerous creature, and that the lengths to which the worst of us will go speak volumes about the rest of us.
The brutal objectivity is sometimes difficult to bear, until, that is, one realizes that McCarthy may well be a nihilist, and his coldness is probably intentional. One critic called an earlier novel a story of “regeneration through violence”–a designation McCarthy reportedly rejected out of hand. No Country seems to concur. The violence exists, but it intends no regeneration, no cathartic moment where the bloodiness makes sense. And this is the point.
The famously reclusive author refuses to write about locations that he has not himself visited. From dusty El Paso and Odessa, Texas, to across the Mexican border, the result is honest, cinematic writing; one senses this is the way life ought to be described. The novel’s magnificently penned dining scenes carry the same narrative weight, in all their mundane truths, as the gruesome crime scenes that McCarthy chronicles.
For those unfamiliar with the author (though a critical and academic darling, his sales have been poor), punctuation is minimal to just-not-there, underscoring the gravity McCarthy imports to the flow, punch and interaction of his words and the scenes they illustrate. Dialogue is gorgeous and grounded, and some of the most dynamic scenes in the novel unfold at in between the action, at rest.
At a diner, between Moss and a 15-year-old female hitchhiker he picks up on the run: “You aint even asked me where I was goin, she said. I know where you’re goin. Where am I goin then. Down the road. That aint no answer. It’s more than just an answer. You dont know everything. No I dont. You ever kill anybody? Yeah, he said. You? She looked embarrassed. You know I aint never killed nobody.”
Writing like this deserves the post-read meditation McCarthy surely intended. The author gives no interviews, makes no appearances, signs no copies. He once told an institution interested in a lecture that everything he had to say was there on the page. Indeed. The ability of McCarthy to world-make, to recast the existing material of life and death in his own vision, merits real reflection, and high praise. In everyday monosyllables, No Country provokes questions of evil, chance, mercy and murder that are as everyday as senseless death can be.