Guns and Dope (and Elegy) in the Desert: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Reviews on this blog are relatively spoiler-free because I believe that part of the joy of reading comes from experiencing a book’s twists and turns first hand. However, a review of No Country for Old Men without addressing the novel’s final fifty pages would be like reviewing just the first half of a March Madness basketball game in which the underdog, down by 15 at the half, makes a come-from-behind win in the second. It would be like reviewing a completely different book. You have been warned.

Cormac McCarthy favors a particular form – sparing punctuation, third person limited narration, and rapid-fire dialogue unencumbered by “he said” “she said” – for telling stories about human life – and death – in the wasteland. His Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road is set in a lonely, post-apocalyptic world; No Country for Old Men in the small towns and deserts of the west Texas-Mexico border.

The protagonist of No Country for Old Men is – surprisingly – the sheriff, who is outmatched by the growing presence and influence of the Mexican dope trade. There hasn’t been an unsolved murder case in Sheriff Bell’s county for thirty years and then, in one day, there are nine scattered around an empty truck in the desert, the dope missing out of the back and the money missing too. Thus the breathless action and adventure begins, following the local sportsman, Moss, who stumbled across the money and took it, the hit man, Chigurh, tasked with getting it back at any cost, and Bell who is always at least one step behind them both. McCarthy devotes more time and detail to weapons and wounds than people or place. The guns, bullets, and the damage they cause are the brokers of power; official law enforcement wallows between after-thought and irrelevance.

For 250 pages, the novel proceeds this way, with gun shots, lucky escapes, plenty of blood, and more than one motel clerk who gets a bullet to the forehead for his trouble. Then, suddenly, Moss and his wife are dead, the money is returned, Chigurh has evaporated into the ether, and Bell is left, still the sheriff, still with nine unsolved – never to be solved – murders.

The end of the novel underscores a generational difference and it is, ironically, the old men who are left at the end: Bell and his wheelchair-bound uncle wondering if, between Viet Nam and the dope industry, there is any honor, integrity, or morality in the world. The climax of the novel is not a shoot-out or an arrest, but Bell walking down the steps of the courthouse after quitting his job as the sheriff. It is an act of defeat, a resignation that it is no longer worth it to stand up for what is right. The young men might have all perished, but without Sheriff Bell, it is truly their country: lawless, violent and without righteousness. The final fifty pages are an elegy to by-gone morals, more somber and sobering because it has been preceded by such a masterfully rendered Western thriller.

Up Next: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
Why? I know nothing about Graham Greene, but it was at the top of a stack and the dust jacket description sounds intriguing.

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