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.
Still, in the Border Trilogy the act starts to slip. All of a sudden we encounter tonalities that would have been unthinkable in McCarthy’s earlier work: romance, heroism, nostalgia, the glamour of youth. It’s no wonder that these were the books that, starting with All the Pretty Horses (which became a Hollywood movie), brought him popular success to go along with his critical esteem. I’m not suggesting he sold out his vision for commercial advantage; no one has been more disdainful of money or fashion than McCarthy. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a matter of age. McCarthy was 58 when the trilogy began to appear. His heroes, at least in the first two volumes, are 16. John Grady Cole, hero of both the first and third (where he’s still only 20) was born almost the same year as McCarthy himself. The trilogy, which is drenched in yearning for the old days of the cowboy, is also McCarthy’s sentimentalization of youth, and of the years of his youth. It is his equivalent of Brideshead Revisited, in which an aging Waugh went all soft over Oxford and the English aristocracy.
The trilogy’s heroes are manly and beautiful and doomed. Their love affairs–with willful heiresses and star-crossed prostitutes–are pure but thwarted. Cowboy life is one long parade of simple, rough-hewn virtues. It’s funny, because the novel that immediately precedes the trilogy is the almost unreadably horrifying Blood Meridian, where the conquest of the same territory, by the same sort of people, is a saga of satanic cruelty and greed. But McCarthy grants his golden cowboys a special exemption from both the history of their own land and the universal depravity of human nature. What’s more, this time around he places his metaphysical pronouncements not in the mouths of his narrators but in those of a series of simple but incredibly wise old Mexicans. If a liberal idealized the lowly and dark-skinned like this, he’d be derided as a sentimentalist, and there’s no reason to see such gestures any differently when made by a conservative, especially one who is well-born (McCarthy’s father was a prominent Knoxville attorney) and foreign to the life he portrays. The trilogy is brilliant in many ways, but it is also embarrassing, an intellectual rhapsodizing about a pack of roughnecks.
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.