Bookforum | Summer 2005

As Faulkner did, Cormac McCarthy likes to have his characters crushed by overwhelmingly, monstrously huge forces that can scarcely be recognized or defined, as there is nothing to compare them to on a human scale. Of course, the presence of irresistibly hostile circumstances is an essential ingredient of tragedy. Equally essential is an affirmation of human values, however futile, in the face of inimical circumstances. Most of Faulkner's work makes that affirmation. Most of McCarthy's does not.

It's not that McCarthy is a nihilist, or anything like it. The sum of his masterful fiction, from The Orchard Keeper at least through All the Pretty Horses, makes it clear that he believes in an order in the universe. The big difference between him and most other great writers spawned by the Judeo-Christian tradition is that McCarthy believes we are much further from the center of order than we prefer to imagine. Human existence, individual or collective, means as much in his scheme of things as dust.

It's difficult to get this comfortless message onto any US bestseller list. Furthermore, although McCarthy's weltanschauung is probably not much darker than Raymond Carver's, it's a whole lot harder for most people to read, due to McCarthy's ambitious, unforgivingly difficult prose style. McCarthy has internalized the most grandiose excesses of Faulkner's style and transformed them for his own purposes, much as Carver did with Hemingway's style. During the same period when Carver's deceptive plainness made him more and more trendy (among his imitators as well as readers), McCarthy's aggressively uncompromising style and increasingly unpalatable substance pushed him further and further from the public eye, to the point that Blood Meridian, still perhaps his greatest work, was noticed only by members of the cult for whom he had become a "writer's writer," and who were probably happy to keep him as their secret.

McCarthy solved his commercial problem with All the Pretty Horses, a short, relatively accessible novel that offered not only the first wholly sympathetic protagonist he had ever presented but also a bona fide love story. The McCarthy cult, by then substantial, felt betrayed by these supposedly pandering features. When read carefully, however, it is plain that All the Pretty Horses is by no means a sellout. The love passages, mercifully infrequent, are embarrassing; like a lot of great male writers, McCarthy is good at capturing women he doesn't like, but women he does tend to dissolve into Eternal Feminine Syrup. The romance in All The Pretty Horses, though, is doomed in exactly the same way that all civilizing endeavors are doomed in McCarthy's work. The considerable heroism of the protagonist, Texas horseman John Grady Cole, is beautiful in and of itself but futile in the face of the same cosmic indifference to the human race and its moral structures that was so awesomely unveiled in Blood Meridian.

No Country for Old Men has a much sharper, brighter edge than the meandering last two volumes of the Border trilogy. Like Child of God, McCarthy's brilliant depiction of a serial-killing necrophiliac, the new book gets its plot from an atrocity crime spree; also, as in Child of God, the author punctuates quick-moving, third-person action scenes with first-person monologues in a homely regional dialect. Child of God adopted a story of backwoods depravity that hardly anyone but McCarthy could have recognized as material for great art. No Country for Old Men pulls its plot from much more familiar headlines, and also seems to owe something to books and movies like Natural Born Killers, A Simple Plan, and First Blood (the sire of Rambo).

Dostoevsky was, on one level, a writer of thrillers, and Nabokov was wrong to sneer at him for it. No Country for Old Men offers much more hard-driving suspense than any of McCarthy's previous works; in fact the plot's motor is so overdriven that one tends to read too fast to savor the writerly nuances. At the same time, certain literary gestures seem overt; McCarthy's villain, who kills with a pneumatic slaughterhouse hammer powered by an oxygen tank on his belt, is the image of the villain of Conrad's Secret Agent, that "pest in the street full of men," clothed in a bomb whose trigger is a bulb always in the palm of his hand.

Despite its urgency, the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and probably isn't supposed to. Out antelope hunting in the southwestern desert, Llewelyn Moss happens upon a stack of bodies from a drug deal gone to hell, and walks away with a valise filled with more than two million dollars in cash. Later that night, for no plausible reason, he decides to revisit the crime scene, where a fresh contingent of criminals separates him from his truck. He flees but they pick up his trail from the registration.

"There is no description of a fool," Moss tells himself, "that you fail to satisfy." This episode is barely even necessary to the plot, since the money bag contains a transponder that would allow the bad guys to follow Moss anyway.

Meanwhile, the local law enforcement, particularly one Sheriff Bell, is shocked and mystified by a series of apparently pointless, horrific crimes: The arch-villain Anton Chigurh garrotes a deputy with his own handcuffs, flees in a patrol car, then stops and slays an unlucky motorist to obtain a less compromising vehicle . . . and so on. Chigurh's connection to the drug deal is tenuous; he's not one of the original players (and in fact we never quite learn how he knows about it). Suffice it to say that he too is on Moss's trail, and that Moss, though a Vietnam vet with combat experience and capability enough to limp away, bloody but still breathing, from half a dozen shoot-outs, is in the end no match for him.

Like the amoral "judge" in Blood Meridian, Chigurh plays the role of Evil Genius, but if his skill, stamina, and pure ruthlessness make him fairly compelling, he remains a flatter, less fascinating character than the judge. Moreover, the judge can't really be called evil at all, since Blood Meridian pointedly refuses to create a context in which such terms are meaningful. In extreme contrast to practically all the rest of McCarthy's work, the new novel is organized around a conventional moral compass, mostly furnished by the good Sheriff Bell.

Bell is the source of the first-person monologues—meditations on his family history and his own long experience in rural law enforcement. Sometimes there's humor to his observation of the changing times: "These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you'd of told em it was their own grandchildren?" Sometimes Bell is as appalled as the old folks at the pass things have come to: "I used to say they were
the same ones we've always had to deal with. . . . Back then they was rustlin cattle. Now they're runnin dope. But I dont know as that's true no more. . . . I aint sure we've seen these people before. Their kind." Or, "I never had to kill nobody and I am very glad of that fact. Some of the old time sheriffs wouldnt even carry a firearm. . . . It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all."

All of a sudden we seem to be looking at the sheriff played by Gary Cooper in High Noon. But in McCarthy's world, the white hats don't win. By the end of the story, Chigurh has killed almost all the main characters, less for the sheer fun of it than to fulfill his own strange sense of the fitness of things. Bell survives only because he drops pursuit and retires, and because he was never on Chigurh's hit list in the first place.

Love is supposed to count for something in this novel, though fending off its presence doesn't do much to fend off the outer dark. The love story between Moss and his young wife is so understated that we need Bell to point out to us that it even exists. Bell's affection for her is presented as the most important thing in his life, but McCarthy has trouble talking about it: "That's my heart yonder, he told the horse. It always was." Or, "If I didnt have her I dont know what I would have. Well, yes I do. You wouldnt need a box to put it in, neither."

Much more deeply convincing is Bell's dream about his father, from whom he draws his own sense of moral orientation in a world that fluctuates between indifference and hostility. This image is as starkly numinous as many of the most alienating passages in McCarthy's previous books, but it conveys something quite different, a peculiarly human warmth: "It was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up."

Madison Smartt Bell is most recently the author of The Stone That the Builder Refused (Pantheon, 2004).


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