Cormac McCarthy - No Country For Old Men

The plot twists in unexpected ways, pushing back against conventions of justice or happy endings

Book Review by Sean Michaels | 15 Feb 2006
Funny that a novel about sheriffs and drug-deals, about assassins and police chases, should be a novel about responsibility, evil, and the meaning of life. Funny and somehow right. Just as John LeCarré has made a career of writing literary spy novels, Cormac McCarthy has stared into the hot bare landscape of Mexico and the American South - at cowboys and indians and hitmen - and found big questions there. 'No Country For Old Men' is written in a prose style dryer than bone, cowpokes speaking fitfully from the sides of their mouths. And in that stillness, that succinctness, there's a groping toward wisdom.

When Llewelyn Moss stumbles across the site of a drug deal gone bad - all corpses and shellcasings and an enormous amount of cash - he must decide quickly what turn his life will now take. The rest of this novel follows from that choice: watching Moss as he runs toward an imagined safety, as he sends his wife away, as he is tracked by the pensive Sheriff Bell. And most of all, as he is trailed by a man named Chigurh, blue-eyed and enigmatic, using a weapon that leaves no bullets – just bullet-holes.

For its first two thirds, No Country For Old Men has all the trappings of a thriller – the shoot-outs, the near escapes, the scenes of grisly murder. As much as it's a page-turner, it's also a slow burn. McCarthy invests his prose with a workman's poetry – plain images linger and the words of Sheriff Bell hang in the air after he's spoken them. The plot twists in unexpected ways, pushing back against conventions of justice or happy endings, yet it's this ambivalent moral tone that gives the conclusion so much strength. Love – central to this book as it was to McCarthy's Border Trilogy - can make life worth living. But it can't keep you alive.
Published by Picador. Out now (Cover Price £16.99).