Monday, April 29, 2013

No Country for Old Men: A Review

Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, (Amazon, Amazon U.K.) is a dystopian, somewhat apocalyptic novel of the contemporary American Southwest.  In simplified terms, it is what happens when the violence of the modern drug cartels intersects with the life of a small town, and its local sheriff.  The novel was made into a critically well received movie produced by the Cohen brothers featuring Tommy Lee Jones playing the sheriff and Javier Bardem as the main bad guy.  I have never seen the movie, but if you tell people you are reading this book they will tell you all about it.

The Movie tie-in cover - which I rather like
Cormac McCarthy is most famous within our apocalyptic genre for The Road a similarly bleak, introspective, novel that features enough tension and terror to keep the "viewers" interest.  Without going into the overly lengthy details, McCarthy is one of the most influential and successful writers of our day.  His various novels frequently make various "best" lists.  It is interesting that someone who does not necessarily write toward a literary audience, receives so many literary acclamations.

The New York Times review gives a wonderful backhanded blurb of the book:
The compulsory drug deal gone wrong that drops the flag on this race with the devil takes place in the desert, in the West Texas jurisdiction of Sheriff Bell, an unreconstructed patriarchal geezer for whom aggressively enforcing the law is less important than passively keeping the peace. He's a watchdog, not an attack dog, content to doze until wrongdoers give him no option but to bite, which he does without breaking the skin, if possible. His drawling, cracker-barrel soliloquies overflow with crusty red-state sentiments that may or may not represent the author's feelings but probably don't violate them terribly. Bell, no public radio moral relativist, has walked over too much cactus in his lifetime to care about the tender sensibilities of those who've stayed safely in their flower gardens. Satan exists, the world is getting worse, and God is too busy with other matters to care. He's written us off and moved on to fresh creations.
Even the New York times snarky reviewer catches the whiff of the Apocalypse.
The main villain is equipped with a strapped  pneumatic captive bolt gun.  Used to kill cattle for slaughter, this device  gives him an excellent method of silently killing people at short range - and incidentally knocking out lock cylinders.  Along the way, he picks up a silenced shotgun. As with much of the plot line, he is a little bit over the top, and it doesn't pay to look too closely at the likelihood of some of what is going on.  There is just a tiny flavor of well disguised magical realism used to keep the story moving along a certain frenetic pace.

As one movie viewer told me- slightly, but only slightly, inaccurately -everyone in the movie dies.  And if there is a major theme to the novel, other than the general theme of things changing for the worse, it is just that.  We all die, and the world that we know and expect to come dies with us. Nothing is permanent, everything changes.

Here we have Sheriff Bell thinking back to his Uncle Harold, who never came back from World War One.
Aunt Carolyn's letters to Harold.  The reason she had them letters was that he had saved em.  She was the one raised him and she was the same as his mother...But the thing about them letters was you could tell that the world she was plannin on him comin back to was not ever goin to be here.  Easy to see now. Sixty years on.  But they just had no notion at all. You can say you like it or you don't like it but it don't change nothin (Kindle location 3352 of 3704).
The book notes that there is a certain amount of good luck and bad luck out there.  There is a randomness to our fate.  But at the same time, there are paths that you can go down, and once you go down a path,  there may not be a door back.  As the assassin tells one victim:
What's done cannot be undone.  I think you understand that.  Your husband, you may be distressed to learn, had the opportunity to remove you from harm's way and he chose not to do so.  He was given that option and his answer was no...[after some further conversation, he continues] I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing.  Somewhere you made a choice.  All followed to this.  The accounting is scrupulous.  The shape is drawn. No line can be erased...A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly.  And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning (~ Kindle location 3070).
Well, obviously I liked it.  To be honest, at points, I would probably say it is as apocalyptic, in the revelatory sense, as The Road.  It may not have cannibals, but it leaves no doubt that there has been a change, and that with society becoming unmoored from its foundations, it is not going to be getting any better.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism: it is in the here and now.  As I noted above, a little over the top at times, but nothing beyond reason.  It is a 7.
Readability: it is mostly a page turner, occasional pauses for rumination slow up the action, but there is a lot of action to pack in between these moments of thoughtfulness.   Page turners are by definition easy reads.  It is a 6, and I will say that in an unconventional way, it is a literary 6.


kymber said...

Russell - i looooved the movie and have been wanting to read the book for a while now...but just haven't gotten around to it. your review has me biting at the bit and i am getting the book pronto!

your friend,

Francis Lee said...

I enjoyed both the movie and book which the movie followed very well.

PioneerPreppy said...

I never read the book and could barely sit through the movie. After choking down "The (rambling) Road" I had no desire to read any other works by this guy.

While I admit the world can be bleak McCarthy needs a healthy dose of Male cooperation in his life. His works always seem to be little more than an everyone for themselves melee. The characters are mostly self centered or single issue focused or it seems to me.

russell1200 said...

Kymber: Good to see you back. Are you still under snow. LOL My son was wearing a teashirt saying "I love my Nova Scotian roots!" that he got from his Aunt who visited there a while back.

Francis: That is the sense I get. From people who I spoke with who just saw the movie, the acting must have been noteworthy.

Pioneer: The Cannibals in the Road cooperated - LOL - sort of. The themes of the two novels have some overlap, but are not at all identical. In The Road, people are isolated because most of the people are gone with societies collapse, and the inability to produce crops means it is unlikely to get better. With this novel, I think the isolation is very much a part of the hyperactive, but atomized world we live in and is very very much intentional. The random intersection of lives as they bump into each other, and then go spinning off again. I think you in particular would very much identify with much of the Sherif's concerns. IMO, it is a deeper, and because it is deeper, a bleaker book than The Road.

Marlene Detierro said...

The writing is extraordinary. McCarthy's style is of course mannered, but his words flow from the page and the voices of his characters are remarkably clear. The book is a delight to anyone who loves the language and loves to see it used well, and the story works on so many levels that it is difficult to imagine anyone -- apart from those who find violence offensive --who will not find something to take away from this novel.

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