Stav’s pick is No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy…
In the realm of ‘serious’ literature there is one name that towers above all others and that is Cormac McCarthy’s. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award, McCarthy is widely regarded as the apotheosis of high-minded literary fiction. Yet surprisingly few people have commented on the fact that several of McCarthy’s works are also exquisite crime novels. His first two books, The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark, were rural revenge noirs in the mould later adopted by Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin. His third novel, Child of God, is about a cannibalistic serial killer. His masterpiece, Blood Meridian, has more crimes committed in it than perhaps any other book in the history of literature. But it’s No Country For Old Men that I want to talk about.
NCFOM is set in 1980, at the start of the 30-year drug war which has since torn northern Mexico to shreds. Moss is an ordinary working man who stumbles on the aftermath of a drug-buy shoot-out in the Texas desert. He takes a suitcase of money from a dead dealer’s hands. That night he suffers a pang of conscience and goes back to the scene to give water to a dying man. It is a measure of McCarthy’s sensibility and, indeed, of all noir fiction that this one moment of kindness sets off an inexorable chain of events, placing Moss squarely in the bad guy’s sights. And what a bad guy it is! Anton Chigurh is one of the most terrifying, appalling, and unstoppable forces in all literature. Like previous McCarthy antagonists he seems more a personification of evil, a howling wraith spewed up from the pit of hell to punish the living.
The set-up is both simple and crime-classic. From here on the novel becomes a white-knuckle chase through the scorched American borderlands. But it’s what McCarthy does with this narrative that makes NCFOM both an exemplary crime novel and, simultaneously, a trenchant and profound work of literature.
Bell, the sheriff and WWII veteran who tries to help Moss, spends large portions of the book meditating on the way life and society have changed since the days of his youth. He and his wife read atrocity stories from the newspaper to each other. These sections are aflame with a palpable sense of loss and anguished rage at the moral degradation of society. At how a human life means very little these days. (“They tortured ‘em first, I don’t know why. Maybe their television was broken.”) Bell’s WWII experience is mirrored by Moss’ time in Vietnam as a sniper. McCarthy uses the two wars to highlight the chasm in morality and belief that cracked open between 1950 and 1980 and how the type of war waged by a country dictates its soul.
A major part of the reason this novel transferred so well to the screen is the dialogue. Some of the best dialogue in fiction, razor-sharp and cynical and funny all at once. Like when Bell and another lawman are discussing the coming future:
“They sell that shit to schoolkids”
“It’s worse than that”
“Schoolkids buy it”
With NCFOM, Cormac McCarthy explodes the literary / genre debate and proves conclusively that you can write a crime novel which follows all the rules and, at the same time, create a piece of fiction resonant with deep ideas, dire warnings, and cautious grace.
- Stav Sherez
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.