It's a Man's, Man's World
There's certainly nothing sentimental about the new novel. Its opening pages quickly introduce its three principal figures: Llewelyn Moss, a decent but flawed man who goes on the lam after finding a briefcase full of cash at the scene of a drug-related killing near the Mexican border; Anton Chigurh, the hired killer tracking him down; and Ed Tom Bell, the local sheriff trying to find Moss before Chigurh does. To call Chigurh a hired killer, though, is like calling Idi Amin a politician. What he really is is a monster, something both more and less than human. Some people he kills just on principle, some just for practice, all with implacable efficiency. His favorite weapon is a bolt-gun, like the kind they use in slaughterhouses, and he is without pity or weakness and accountable to no one. He is perhaps the most terrifying figure in American fiction--even now, weeks after I read the book, I can scarcely write his name without looking over my shoulder--though admittedly most of his rivals for that honor come from McCarthy's own oeuvre. Indeed, he recalls the Judge in Blood Meridian, one of McCarthy's greatest creations. Like the Judge (and like the Devil, who seems to have sent them both), Chigurh is at once evil's most extreme face and its greatest scourge--in Sheriff Bell's words, "a true and living prophet of destruction." He is human wickedness turned back against itself.
No Country for Old Men is not Chigurh's story, though, nor, as it seems at first, is it Moss's. It is Bell's, for it is Bell who provides the framing commentary for the novel's relentlessly bloody events, and it is the effect of those events on his understanding of himself and the world that is the novel's ultimate subject. Bell speaks to us between chapters, and while the chapters themselves are narrated in the third person, the narrative style is nothing like what we expect from McCarthy, offering only the barest and swiftest notation of events: no high rhetoric, no grand ideas. The quasi-divine intelligence that normally governs his novels has withdrawn, leaving us, like Bell, adrift in a world devoid of meaning. The willingness to care for other creatures, whether human or animal, is the standard of goodness in McCarthy's world. But now (the novel is set in 1980), after many years of looking after the tiny population of his Texas county like a stern but benevolent father, Bell feels impotent before the unprecedented violence of the new drug economy. He is aging, like his creator, and discovers that the place where time has brought him is no country for old men.
As the novel nears its end, however, Bell's very doubts about the value of his life's work become the excuse for an affirmation of timeworn verities: the endurance of truth, the existence of God, the nihilism of unbelief, the goodness of the old ways. The sheriff is clearly McCarthy's mouthpiece here, and so we find the erstwhile apostle of ignorance giving us chapter and verse about what to believe and how. Waugh finally came to this kind of tub-thumping certainty, too. And the trilogy's historical problem also resurfaces. What Bell is confronting, we're told again and again, is a new kind of evil. Apparently the Old West, like the rest of human history, was just one big family. Like Waugh, again, McCarthy has forgotten that his critique of modernity is only a subset of his critique of humanity. And the problem with the present, apparently, isn't just drugs, it's also abortion, kids with green hair and the loss of good manners. McCarthy the conservative has conscripted McCarthy the artist for service in the culture wars, and the result turns out about as happily as such arrangements usually do.
Indeed, in ways that aren't true of his previous works, no matter how bloody, No Country for Old Men seems designed as a calculated assault on the reader. In the two interviews McCarthy has given, he has defended the violence of his works by speaking of death as the ultimate reality, the avoidance of death as a failing in both people and novels. But in his previous works, death is only part of the point, an aspect of the violent worlds he portrays. Here, it often seems the only point, the story a single-minded effort to pile up the body count. It is Chigurh's practice, before he kills someone, to force them to look him, to look death, in the face, and that's just what McCarthy does to us, rubbing our tender little modern liberal noses in death's horror by making us watch it in slow motion: "Chigurh shot him in the face. Everything that Wells had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him." But this, and passages like it, are a sign of weakness, not strength: McCarthy needs to be this explicit and this manipulative because he has failed to make us care about his characters. There's also something sophomoric and ultimately sad in the morbid fascination he displays at moments like this. Given his age, maybe he isn't rubbing our noses in death so much as ramming his own head against it. Fiction may or may not be any country for old men, but the present never is.