Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men

Unlike The Road (the movie version of which, inexplicably, showed up in one theater in Atlanta but nowhere closer to me ((WHY?))), I actually saw the movie version of No Country for Old Men first.  The movie was next to brilliant (but, of course, it’s a Coen brothers film, so you know…), but having just finished the book I can now apply that wonderfully worn but almost always true cliche’ to this story:  the book is better than the movie.

Bottom line:  McCarthy can write like a tornado.  His prose is stark and brutal.  It’s very deceptive.  There are almost no rhetorical frills to it and almost no overly complex sentences but, when you finish reading McCarthy’s work you wake up a couple of days later feeling bruised, like you’ve been sucker punched by your Grandpa.  If you just got lost in all that, let me just assure you that, yes, that was a compliment.

Mrs. Richardson wanted to sit this one out, having just read The Road.  She loved The Road, as did/do I, but it was a dark read and she wanted a respite.  So, of course, a few nights back I say, “Listen to this scene,” and, of course, she says the next morning, “He’s a really good writer!”  And there you go.  We read most of it together.

Depending on how much Cormac McCarthy’s views are similar to those of Sheriff Bell (and I suspect they’re very similar), he may just be my new best friend.  Bell’s sporadic reflections, italicized throughout, were worth the read.  He drops wisdom about family, God, truth, faith, war, patriotism, and, of all things, abortion.  This last point very much caught me off guard, pleasantly.  Bell recounts sitting next to a liberal woman at a conference who wants to make sure that her daughter grows up in a country where she can get an abortion.  Bell wryly assures her that there does not seem to be much threat of that changing.  Then he goes on to say (and I paraphrase):  “I suspect she’ll always be able to get an abortion.  She’ll also be able to have you put to sleep too.”  Bell then notes that that ended the conversation.

Brilliant, I say, and true!

Chigurh is more brutal in the book than in the movie, if that’s possible.  Little scenes the movie left out gave me chills.  After shooting up the Mexican dope dealers after his gunfight with Llewelyn, Chigurh stands over one of them ready to execute them.  The dope dealer looks away.  Chigurh says, “No.  I want you to look at me.”  Then he shoots him.  It’s at moments like these that you enter and understand the Sheriff’s suffocating anxiety about what’s happening to the world.  Chigurh is amoral, cold, soulless almost.

Llewelyn is a tragic figure.  You pull for him, of course.  He’s a good guy, especially in how faithful he is to his wife (and isn’t that a rarity in big-time stories like this?), but he’s proud.  His pride is his undoing.  There are hints throughout that his time in Vietnam is playing into this.  But, in the end, Llewelyn just isn’t a Chigurh.  When he has Chigurh at gunpoint in his hotel room (another scene not in the movie), he won’t shoot him.  Part of you thinks, “If you shot that guy, your troubles would be mostly over.”  But that’s just it.  Llewelyn isn’t a Chigurh.  He’s not a killer.

I’ll just finally note that I am still chewing here on McCarthy’s point.  I think I get it then it seems to elude me.  But I’ll say this:  it resonates with me.  I feel that I understand it even if I can’t articulate it.  The closing dream is key:  Bell’s father going ahead with fire in a horn.  It’s an image that McCarthy really likes and he uses it throughout The Road.  Oddly enough, it reminds me of the end of Brideshead Revisited, where Charles Ryder stands before the small flame in the Brideshead family chapel, then walks out smiling.  (Heck, it reminds me of of Gandalf’s secret-flame-guardianship-announcement on the bridge of Khazad-dum!)

I somehow think that the key to understanding McCarthy is in that reappearing flame.  It’s awful small in his stories, but it is not extinguished.  I suspect it makes McCarthy smile in his less morose moments.  I’m starting to think I might know what it is.


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