I set all these lofty goals for myself in regards to my reading this year and I’ve failed spectacularly already. However, I’m not one to stay down for long and I decided to attempt to reverse my failures with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.
I rarely read a book after I’ve seen the film but I loved the film adaptation of this book so much that this was a no-brainer. I’ve never read any of McCarthy’s books and this is said to be pulpier fare than his usual but I enjoyed it immensely. I would describe No Country For Old Men as a suspenseful noir Western and although McCarthy’s style of writing and narration is laconic and almost terse, his characters really come alive.
The novel tells the story of Llewelyn Moss, a welder, who comes across $2.4 million dollars in a bag after stumbling onto the scene of a drug deal gone wrong. Surrounded by dead and dying bodies, Moss decides to take the bag and an impulsive decision to bring one of the dying drug dealers some water to drink sets off a chain of events that take the reader on a thrilling chase across Texas and Mexico.
“Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction…”
Sociopathic hit-man Anton Chigurh is hired to retrieve the money from Moss and the characterisation of this relentless, evil, killer is one of the highlights of the novel. Chigurh leaves murder and destruction in his wake and he’s truly terrifying. He doesn’t kill indiscriminately but I was left holding my breath every time he came into contact with a new character.
“It takes very little to govern good people. Very Little. And bad people can’t be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.”
Influenced by the movie adaptation, I initially thought that Llewelyn Moss was our main protagonist but I would say that the honour belongs to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. The Sheriff is tasked with leading the investigation into the drug deals/ murders and he’s our moral compass of the novel. Sheriff Bell is emblematic of the “good old days” and the reader truly understands his despair at failing to prevent many of the horrific events that occur in the novel.
The primary protagonists are so well drawn that you truly feel as though you understand these men and their motivations. The novel is fast-paced and even the secondary characters such as Llewelyn’s young wife Carla Jean are well fleshed-out. Themes of chance, fate, and the inherent destructive nature of man are all well-explored.
My only negatives are that McCarthy’s style most definitely requires a small period of acclimatisation. Punctuation seems to be non-existent and although I eventually got used to it, it was initially extremely jarring. I would also have liked to see a larger role for the female characters but this did not take away from my enjoyment of the novel. Additionally, the last third of the novel was slightly disappointing in comparison to the heights reached in the earlier chapters. A main character’s death is treated almost as an afterthought and I felt slightly cheated after spending so much time invested in their actions.
However, these complaints are relatively minor and I cannot recommend this novel enough. If you haven’t seen the fantastic adaptation from the Coen Brothers starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem, I highly recommend that also. It is extremely faithful to the source material and it is an excellent companion to the book.