NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
By Cormac McCarthy
It was the film critic Pauline Kael who once declared that “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” It’s a line that immediately comes to mind when reading No Country For Old Men. And it does so for two reasons: the essentially cinematic quality of McCarthy’s writing, and the fact that, when it does succeed, it achieves a greatness that has to be qualified as being great trash.
First off: McCarthy writes great film. His critics regularly compare him to Melville, Conrad, Dostoyevsky and Faulkner, but none of these are among the first names I think of. At least for his “Western phase” the influences I register are Leone and Peckinpah, or macho screen-scribes like Paul Schrader and John Milius. The Judge in Blood Meridian is not Conrad’s Kurtz but Coppola’s: the giant bald Brando of Apocalypse Now (who even has something similar to say about people who try to judge his actions). When No Country For Old Men opens with the hero Moss finding a bunch of dead bodies in some pick-up trucks out in the desert along with a case full of treasure there won’t be many people in the audience who aren’t thinking of Clint Eastwood and the stagecoach in The Good the Bad and the Ugly.
And these are just surface borrowings. The more important thing is that McCarthy writes like a movie. As has been remarked by many critics, his characters are the antitheses of Faulkner’s (or those of any of the other authors whose names are usually invoked) in that they have no inner life. The only thoughts they have, or seem to have, are what can be shown in minimalist gestures (“Chigurh cocked his head slightly”) or long-winded philosophical ramblings. And the dialogue . . . Yes! What dialogue! McCarthy is a master of voice. But what do we think of authors who can write pages and pages, even whole chapters, of nothing but dialogue? Is it not like a screenplay? Is the screenplay the magnetic pole McCarthy’s writing is irresistibly drawn toward? Here is how one chapter in Child of God begins:
In the smith’s shop dim and near lightless save for the faint glow at the far end where the forge fire smoldered and the smith in silhouette hulked above some work. Ballard in the door with a rusty axehead he’d found.
This is what’s known as showing not telling. And what you are being shown is only what the camera sees and exactly as the camera sees it. Here is a tracking shot from No Country For Old Men (and I’m pulling this passage at random):
In the first vehicle there was a man slumped dead over the wheel. Beyond were two more bodies lying in the gaunt yellow grass. Dried blood black on the ground. He stopped and listened. Nothing. The drone of flies. He walked around the end of the truck. There was a large dead dog there of the kind he’d seen crossing the floodplain. The dog was gutshot. Beyond that was a third body lying face down. He looked through the window at the man in the truck. He was shot through the head. Blood everywhere. He walked on to the second vehicle but it was empty. He walked out to where the third body lay. There was a shotgun in the grass. The shotgun had a short barrel and it was fitted with a pistol stock and a twenty round drum magazine. He nudged the man’s boot with his toe and studied the low surrounding hills.
What sort of prose is this? How did that “gaunt” (the only adjective with any possible subjective connotations) get in there? When I read stuff like this I expect to see “CUT TO:” and “INT./EXT.” splitting the page into blocks of direct speech, not proper paragraphs.
I don’t mean to suggest that McCarthy’s writing is in some way inferior for this direction it takes. It’s only something I like to keep in mind when I hear all the talk about how akin McCarthy is to great writers in the past. I’m just not as sure about his relation to literary tradition as other people seem to be. At least in terms of style. Maybe something of Hemingway’s paratactic sentences (“and . . . and . . . and . . . and”), but that’s about it. Even the title here is in no way a literary allusion. The book has nothing to do with Yeats. Yes times are changing and Old Man Bell is obviously feeling it, but the real message seems to be that this is No Country For Pussies Who Can’t Take a Bullet (or Two) and Keep Firing, or who, at the very least, are unable to appreciate the lethal quality of a heavybarreled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut and a Unertl telescopic site. Now that’s a rifle you want to take with you to Byzantium, so’s to kill some of them fancy gold birds they got.
But enough of No Country For Old Men as movie, and, as Kael has it, a species of trash. Is it good trash? Is it great trash?
It does have the trash virtue of taking itself very seriously. In the ponderous philosophizing it even comes dangerously close to camp. The scene where Chigurh forces the storekeeper to wager his life on a coin toss is brilliantly executed with its delicate ratcheting of tension and threat – but then to end on such a note as this!:
Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldn’t even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don’t pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?
Try as I can, I don’t see the problem. I don’t know what Chigurh means by separating the act from the thing. Presumably it has something to do with everything being accounted for by Fate, which can even use a coin as its instrument. But I’m not sure it matters. Chigurh is another one of McCarthy’s spectacular philosopher-killers and I half suspect his speech is (to borrow from Tarantino now) “just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker ‘fore you pop a cap in his ass.” Only without the irony.
That lack of irony can be troubling. I’m not sure, but I seem to remember McCarthy having a sense of humour back in his Tennessee days, or at least something more than the laconic action-hero one-liners we get here. Unfortunately, this book gives the impression that McCarthy really is as limited and reactionary as he seems. When Sheriff Bell goes to a conference in Corpus Christi he meets a woman who just “kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. I aint even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people.” Ah, yes. There is no right wing. There is only “the people.” Never heard that one before . . .
I’d like to think Bell isn’t being used as the author’s mouthpiece at a time like this, but what he says is so gratuitous (he even goes on to make an anti-abortion crack) I don’t think that’s possible. As noted, this is a book that takes itself very seriously. There is nothing funny about a Man having an eye for a good pair of boots:
Then there was an expensive pair of ostrichskin boots standing in the doorway.
(This is the killer Chigurh.)
Wells smiled. He leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs. He wore an expensive pair of Lucchese crocodile boots.
(Wells is going to die. Not necessarily because of his Lucchese boots, but because he crosses his legs.)
They walked side by side down the aisle toward the boot section. Tony Lama, Justin, Nocona. There were some low chairs there and Moss eased himself down and sat with his hands gripping the chair arms. I need boots and some clothes he said. I got some medical problems and I dont want to walk around no more than what I can help.
The man nodded. Yessir, he said. Of course.
Do you carry Larry Mahans?
No sir. We dont.
(Hey cowboy! Only what you see on the shelf! But still, Moss has gained our respect by knowing exactly what kind of boots he wants. He’s OK.)
One can see how relevant Kael’s comment is. Yes, this is a movie. And, aside from one twist, a trite one at that. The characters are types of Good and Evil. The good guys are “the People,” while McCarthy’s devils (like the foreign-sounding Chigurh and the Judge) are simply indestructible forces of punishment and wrath, articulate Terminators and Jasons. And yet at the same time, as moral fable the book is a hopeless combination of cliché and muddle. The great (unconscious?) irony is that the psychopath Chigurh embodies the kind of old-fashioned Code that Bell mourns the passing of. He is true to his word, a model corporate employee (he figures a high body count will help him in the job market), and most of all a believer in something larger than himself. And what is that something else but cosmic justice, the operation of Fate?
No Country For Old Men is, at least, a return to form for McCarthy after the truly unbearable Border Trilogy. His ability to create character, environment and dramatic atmosphere out of nothing but dialogue remains second to none. And the story, though trite, does have a giant, mythic force to it. But its larger-than-life quality has no direct literary antecedent. Written on the page, it is is imagined on the silver screen. Why, we may well ask, is it set in 1980? Because that year marked a cultural watershed. Not away from family values, as Sheriff Bell fears, but away from big, single-screen theatres. After 1980 there came the multiplex, and then the VCR, and finally DVDs. After 1980 the US was no country for entertainments like this. It belongs to an earlier dispensation.
Review first published September 19, 2005.