The Magazine

Tale of the New West

Kicking the corpses of postmodern America.

Aug 29, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 46 • By RANDY BOYAGODA
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No Country for Old Men

by Cormac McCarthy

Knopf, 320 pp., $26

"NO PLEASURE BUT MEANNESS," Flannery O'Connor's wickedest line, could easily stand as the credo for Cormac McCarthy's fiction.

While McCarthy has long been in a symphonic conversation with that testosterone quartet of American writers--Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, and James Fenimore Cooper--his work may resonate most against that demure little Georgia lady's stories. Like O'Connor, McCarthy populates his world with homicidal moralists and hayseed philosophers, fills it with absurdity and brutality, and delivers what grace there is with the velvet touch of a sledgehammer.

The difficulty with McCarthy, more than O'Connor, is that his virtuoso imaginings of American life in its primal viciousness tend to overwhelm many readers to the point where they miss the deeply moral criticism at work amid the viscera. In his latest novel, the moral dimension is more emphatically on offer, if accompanied by the predictable overload of carnage (the most creative of which is done with an air-powered stun gun designed for cattle slaughter). Yet McCarthy avoids any stiff moralizing by issuing his charges against America's contemporary cultural devolution through the folksy meditations of an aging small-town sheriff. This character tries--and fails, with a measure of honor--to bring to justice "some new kind" of killer on the loose in the late 20th-century Texas badlands of scrub desert and interstate, cheap motels and trailer parks, Vietnam veterans and Mexican drug-runners. The result is an altogether readable novel that intertwines fated-ness with a desire for redemption, amid much greed and gore.

The novel's protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, is a hardscrabble ex-soldier prone to tough-guy poetics: "By the time he got up he knew that he was probably going to have to kill somebody. He just didnt know who it was." On a hunting trip, Moss happens on a drug deal gone murderously bad. He comes away with $2 million stuffed in a briefcase. Seemingly in the clear upon returning to his young wife and their trailer, he is compelled to go back. There was one man left alive in the desert, barely, who kept begging for agua while Moss inspected the rotting corpses, bags of heroin, and array of materiel. And so Moss fills up a jug. "For a Mexican dopedealer. Yeah. Well. Everybody is somethin."

Stubbly caritas sets up poetic justice, McCarthy-style: Not only is the man dead upon Moss's reaching him, not only does Moss then get discovered by parties who come after him with unstinting vengeance, but after an initial escape that leaves him breathless and bruised under the hot Texas sun, he realizes that he himself "hadnt even taken a drink."

The ensuing manhunt ranges across Texas and down into Mexico and involves rival bands of mercenaries, a one-man killing machine named Chigurh, and a host of square-jawed lawmen confronted by a mounting body count and opaque leads. The shootouts, chases, and stoic dialogue give the novel something of a pulpy texture at times, and the prose can be so intensely visual and heavy with action that it reads cinematically:

He turned up Adams Street and the car skidded sideways through the intersection in a cloud of rubbersmoke and stopped. The engine had died and the driver was trying to start it. Two men had come from the car and were crossing the street on foot at a run. One of them opened fire with a small caliber machinegun and he fired at them with the shotgun and then loped on with the warm blood seeping into his crotch.

Moss gets away, at least here, but the novel's picaresque and pictorial violence never exhausts itself.

In his equally violent past fiction, McCarthy revealed vast interior spaces in men otherwise taken for cardboard cutouts: cattle rustlers and frontiersmen and all manner of desperadoes from the Old West. He attempts likewise with a New West cast this time, but the result is not as piercing. McCarthy provides Moss with on-the-run reflections that never really open unto any depth suggested by his Vietnam past. Instead, the character comes off, too programmatically, as a mixture of kindhearted toughness and existential bitterness trying to make good in spite of it all.

Meanwhile, Chigurh, with his stun-gun stalking and coin-flipping nihilism, seems to be an update on the apocalyptically evil Judge from Blood Meridian. But again, the composition is overly familiar, both in the context of his far more capacious predecessor and in terms of his contemporariness. A passing dismissal from another character proves to be only too accurate: "He's a psychopathic killer but so what? There's plenty of them around."