You’d be forgiven for thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s slim, disillusioned new novel, with its suggestively self-referential title, as the 72-year-old writer’s farewell to fiction. You’d also be forgiven for hoping it was. It’s not that No Country for Old Men–taut, savage, headlong–isn’t first-rate by ordinary standards, but by the standards of McCarthy’s previous work, which has established him as one of America’s greatest living writers, it is superficial and perfunctory. The moral intensity remains; the imaginative complexity is gone. No Country for Old Men, whose streamlined, cinematic plot is compressed into some 300 short pages, is McCarthy’s first novel in the seven years since he closed the Border Trilogy with Cities of the Plain. Though he is said to have three or four other works in various states of composition, he seems to have run out of patience with the majestic, processional prose and slow sifting of existential questions that gave his earlier work its weight. McCarthy has long attracted comparison with Faulkner, Hemingway and Melville, but in the shape his career has assumed of late he reminds me most of Evelyn Waugh, another unrelenting Catholic moralist who, as he aged, declined first into sentimentality, then into certainty.
Whether McCarthy remains a practicing Catholic is not known (he is famously jealous of biographical detail), but he had a Catholic upbringing, and his work is driven by a Catholic sense of sin and evil. This is not to say that his novels articulate an identifiable theology. While they are obsessed with good and evil, sin and suffering, fate and death, their imaginative power and philosophical depth are founded on the agonized perplexity with which they approach such questions. Call it Catholicism minus revelation. McCarthy has a hundred ways of describing a sunset, but this signature image isn’t deployed for mere decoration. Darkness is his master metaphor, the nightly reminder of our indefeasible ignorance. Daylight, knowledge and life are alike the briefest of intrusions on an eternal abyss. So while his work is saturated with religious emotion, it asserts no belief in God, redemption, heaven or hell, only in what the world of experience, he suggests, incessantly demonstrates: the wickedness of human nature and the overwhelming power of evil. Goodness exists in McCarthy’s world, and it is beautiful, but it is also innocent, fragile and weak. Goodness exists, but only where evil has yet to hunt it out.
It’s no accident that McCarthy moved to the Southwestern desert, some thirty years ago, from his native Tennessee. If the urbane Waugh’s mode of denouncing human depravity was satiric, the ascetic McCarthy’s is prophetic, and the wilderness has always been the locus of prophecy, the place where the chatter of civilization dies away and inhuman presences–or absences–become discernible in wind and stone. Among his contemporaries, McCarthy comes closest in sensibility to J.M. Coetzee, whose own ascetic refusal, equally sulphurous in its rejection of modernity, bespeaks the bleakness of the South African veld.
But where Coetzee’s style is mercilessly spare, McCarthy’s is formal and orotund and cadenced. It is also supremely audacious, biblical not only in its rhythms but in the right it claims to speak of the highest things in the highest language. No one since Faulkner has attempted this kind of thing, but McCarthy’s daring surpasses even his master’s, for his authorial voice seems designed to fill the place of an absent God. Its characteristic march of syntactic units (“and…and…and”) bespeaks the inexorability of fate, but it also functions as a kind of ritual, blessing even the smallest events with supreme seriousness by affirming the indelibility of their existence: This is true and this is true and this is true. Whatever the horrors McCarthy describes–and his novels are the bloodiest in serious fiction–they are redeemed from meaninglessness just by being described. In a world of ephemera, his style aspires to the permanence of characters chiseled in stone.
But to speak of only one style in McCarthy’s writing is misleading. Set against the lofty rhetoric of his narrators is his characters’ plain, bluff talk. With a perfect ear, McCarthy transcribes the gruff and laconic but somehow marvelously resonant vernaculars of his cowboys, misfits and desperados in snatches of dialogue that sit within the expanse of his prose like a campfire on a vast plain. The two voices, narrator’s and characters’, are as remote as heaven and earth, and their juxtaposition enacts the relationship between God and man. Simple souls, oblivious to the enormous meanings their actions entrain, are held within the merciless hand of an all-seeing, all-judging providence. It is a rhetorical high-wire act that risks falling into bathos at every moment–you almost can’t believe you’re taking this sermonizing seriously–but McCarthy carries it off by sheer artistic authority.