Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott
December 2008

No Country for Old Men

by Cormac McCarthy, Picador 2005, 305 pp.

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy, Picador 2007, 307 pp.

Although Cormac McCarthy is best known for The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain), I decided to begin my acquaintance with his work by reading one of the more recent of his books available: No Country for Old Men.  This book also caught my attention since a movie version recently hit the big screen as well. 

The first five pages shocked me with a brutal description of a suspect in custody escaping by strangling a sheriff with his handcuff chain hard enough to burst the sheriff’s jugular vein as they write on the floor in violent ecstasy.  This was my introduction to Anton Chigurh, the main character of the book and the anti-hero of all anti-heroes.  Chigurh is following another character, Llewelyn Moss, throughout most of the book trying to get back money Moss has found in the desert in the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad in a very bloody way.  Once Moss realizes Chigurh is after him, he believes he can outwit him.  Chigurh, however, is not simply a man out for revenge or the return of stolen (or taken) goods.  Sparing some lives at random, cutting others short with a brutality which is certainly psychopathic, Chigurh is portrayed as inhuman.  McCarthy shows us the beast in Yeat’s famous poem, slouching into Bethlehem to be born.

Chigurh represents a new breed of criminal in Texas in 1980, where the story is set.  Witness to this changing of the guard – and moral compass of the book – is the soon to retire Sheriff Bell.  Sheriff Bell thinks he’s seen it all in his many years of law enforcement but the scenes he comes across as he tries to get to Moss before Chigurh does, convince him that there is a new evil out there so brutal and nasty in its execution that Bell begins to question the very meaning of life itself.  This is done in philosophical, first person chapters written in italics.  (These in-depth ruminations are missing from the movie version, which can make the on-screen violence seem gratuitous.)  In the book, the violence makes sense as a way for McCarthy to show, in graphic detail, the meaninglessness that causes Bell to have his existential crisis.  Bell will be one of the only people to experience Chigurh’s violence and survive.  The only reason for this is because Bell does not ever really come into direct contact with Chigurh.  Chigurh knows Bell is out there and that Bell knows who he is, but he knows Bell won’t come after him and, feeling thusly unthreatened, returns the favor by not coming after Bell.  But, then, the future is never really threatened by the past is it?

McCarthy’s writing is very sparse, with little exposition but with graphic description of scene and action, including the executions conducted by Chigurh.  His dialog is done without quotation marks and is realistic.  His symbolism, or what we can read into the lines between the action and the story, is rich and complex.  In all of those aspects, including the lack of quotation marks or other punctuation surrounding his dialog, we can compare him with Hemingway and/or Faulkner.  His writing, while easy to read for non-native and native readers alike, is literary and he is considered to be one of the important still living writers of the late 20th/early 21st centuries.  Since his powers of description are so great, I should then warn anyone wishing to read this book that, while important and necessary to the plot, the violent images rendered on the pages of No Country for Old Men can be disturbing.  (The filmed images, which follow the book quite closely, are also quite graphic and disturbing.  I went to see the film version with a friend who was so upset about the violence that he was angry with me for several days after for not having better warned him.)  Do not let the violence stop you, though, from reading this worthy book.

McCarthy uses the violence to symbolize the breakdown of society, the old ways changing into something new – something perhaps extreme and ugly, certainly something more pessimistic than the past.  His vision is apocalyptic; his view on humanity bleak.  And his message is clear as conveyed in the symbolism of his writing.   This is a theme he continues in his most recent book, The Road, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. 

The Road is set several years into a post-apocalypse future in North America, specifically Canada and the U.S.A.  It is not completely clear if there has been an atomic war or if the planet has collapsed from some of the issues surrounding global warming.  What is clear, however, in McCarthy’s message and symbolism as well as the story itself, is that man has badly mismanaged his stewardship of the earth to the point where the land is barren and poisonous and the people dying out slowly.  Food has become so scarce that people are now hunting other people, especially children, for food.  As the son and father – the main characters of this novel – make their way from the center of the continent to the sea, they search for food to replenish their dwindling supplies while trying to avoid any human contact.  Using the trope of the quest story, McCarthy builds an amazing amount of tension in the search for food.  In this environment food exists scarcely, if at all, in forms we’ve been accustomed to so the conflict of trying to find what doesn’t exist and cannot be replaced provides quite a bit of suspense.  More than is to be expected, actually. 

Positive or negative encounters with other people – the plot device we would expect McCarthy to use to build tension – is avoided or, rather, turned around.  The tension in this plot device in The Road comes from avoiding people rather than seeking them out and wishing to encounter them.  Mankind is no longer to be trusted.  There are a few confrontations with other humans along the way east to the sea and these are not usually pretty and often turn violent (though the violence is more along the lines of self-defense rather than sociopathic as in No Country for Old Men.  It is much less graphic, as well).  The father and the son in this story are not seeking to join a group as they make their way east to the sea.  They are simply seeking to survive.

At first along their journey the son becomes quite ill.  The father must care for him and nurse him back to health.  The reader wonders if he will be successful.  When it appears that he will succeed, the father then becomes sick himself.  Will the son now be able to care for him?  Has the son grown enough, or learned enough, to do so?  Or will the son end up alone?  Or will either the son or father – or both – search out, find and join the one group of good people that is perhaps out there?  The answers must be discovered by reading the book. 

That the son is actually born after the apocalypse happens also suggests hope.  (It is explained that his mother died after his birth and before the father and he set out on the road.)  In fact, it appears that McCarthy wants the boy to represent perhaps even a Christ-like or religious hope.  This is fairly easy to read between the lines.  As for the actual lines of the text itself, the writing is clear and simple and very approachable for both non-native and native readers of English. 

Is The Road, then, overall hopeful or overall depressing?  Can such a simple plot and such a no-way-out scenario be reassuring or somehow inspiring?  I won’t answer that question, of course, since finding out the answer is the main reason for reading this book.  But I will say that Cormac McCarthy surprised me two or three times before the story ended.  I imagine any reader will be surprised – and impressed – with this seemingly simple story and I highly recommend reading the book.

Scott Humphries, 8 December 2008 Bangkok