No Country For Old Men
Forgive me if this seems a touch ungenerous, but the phrase “blood red” — it’s something of a cliché, no? A “blood red” sun, for example — isn’t that more or less of the same piece as calling a winter sky “steely grey” or a pair of eyes “icy blue”? I mention it because of Cormac McCarthy. The color seems to be a favorite of his.
One runs across it most everywhere. The sky, the sun, the clouds, the dust, fingers stained by nopal fruit. “The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred clouds,” goes a not unrepresentative passage. “Ice had frozen on the rock and the myriad of icicles among the conifers glistened blood red,” goes another. It’s an odd thing, particularly considering that the shade’s not an especially apt one given the items at hand. Are sunsets ever actually blood red? The ones I’ve seen have always struck me as a bit more pinkish and orange. Likewise with McCarthy’s skies and his clouds. His dust, meanwhile, I’d wager has more a brownish, rusty tinge. As for the nopal, here I have to claim ignorance, but mention of the plant turns my mind less to blood and more to thoughts of fruit punch.
This is, of course, what clichés do — distance you from the very things you use them to describe. They work as mediation of a sort. McCarthy, however, has always had a curious relationship with cliché. He rarely lapses into it (my Rooneyesque carping about “blood red” aside, he is, at least where the physical is concerned, a remarkably precise writer), but he seems to flirt with it on almost every page. It’s a matter of subject — his sturdy cowboys and prideful patrones and windswept prairies and wise old men — and style — the stripped-down, spare clauses chained together by Hemingway’s “ands”; the ponderous, philosophizing, Faulknerian passages, with their bloodlusts and baroque crescendos and historical obsessions. Essentially, insanely, what McCarthy has done, is taken perhaps the most thoroughly mythologized of all American subjects, and attacked it in prose that echoes — one assumes knowingly — that of perhaps America’s two most thoroughly mythologized writers. He’s planted a minefield amidst a graveyard and given himself the task of strolling on through without rousing any ghosts.
What amazes is not simply that he does it, but the vigor with which he manages. There’s precious little tip-toeing going on about these headstones.
McCarthy’s latest, No Country For Old Men, carries on this self-tasked mission. This time, though, he’s chosen a different set of tropes to build his story between. The Old West is out, in its place now a more contemporary Texas border, along which McCarthy works an equally contemporary detective thriller. It goes something like this: Out and about in the desert one morning, Llewelyn Moss stumbles across two trucks full of dead bodies and, more significantly, a satchel full of cash. He takes it, and, recognizing that whomever it belongs to will, most likely, be along looking for him shortly, sends his wife off to her mother’s before heading out on the lam himself. Meanwhile, Anton Chigurh, a blue-eyed killer even more prolific than he is proficient, has attached himself to Moss’ trail. A fairly standard game of cat-and-mouse ensues, drawing into the story, among others, a teenage hitchhiker, an ex-Special Forces colonel, a small-town Texas sheriff, and a rotating cast of colossally unfortunate motel clerks. Many guns are fired, a good bit of blood is shed, and the body count stretches well into the double-digits by the time the business comes to a close. It is a story practically ready-made for a movie screen, and if McCarthy has not already auctioned off the film rights, I would be very surprised indeed.
But, again, the book is also more than this. Recognizable as a thriller, it manages to rise above the genre. To an extent this is due to plotting — McCarthy’s willingness to kill off his characters in a manner contradictory to the form’s demands. Mostly, though, it’s the prose. The author’s inner-Hemingway would seem to have the run of the place this time around, and the writing here is more consistently terse than in any other of his books. He remains a master of landscapes and, perhaps even more to the point of this latest novel, of process:
“He took the pistol from beside the box and cocked and leveled it out the window, resting the barrel on the rearview mirror. The pistol had been fitted with a silencer sweated onto the end of the barrel. The silencer was made out of brass mapp-gas burners fitted into a hairspray can and the whole thing stuffed with fiberglass roofing insulation and painted flat black.”
This shows all the signs of a shoot-em-up, certainly, but one that will be brilliantly done.
Brilliantly done, but with some notable exceptions. Old Men never quite reaches the level of McCarthy’s best. The old concerns are all here — blood, death, history, man’s inability to face down any of the three — but the old surefootedness is not. That aforementioned menace, cliché, creeps in at the edges. There are conversations between Moss’ wife and her mother that one feels they have seen a million times before. There is a coin-tossing bit with the killer Chigurh that would make even the most unrepentantly hackish of screenwriters cringe. Most problematic, though, is Ed Tom Bell, the small-town sheriff who ambles uneasily throughout the book wondering just where the world went so wrong. Dispensing dime-store wisdom between cups of black coffee, Bell is meant, it seems clear, to stand-in as a voice for the novel’s larger concerns. Unfortunately he sounds like nothing so much as an old man rocking atop his front porch, crabbing and waving his cane at the kids.
And then there is the nagging regret that the book’s spare style, though undeniably well brought off, is perhaps a bit too spare. There are beautiful passages, but one wishes that there could be more of them. There has always been with McCarthy a certain danger of long-windedness — a tendency to get himself cranking, and then forget when it’s time to wind things back down. This is not a problem in Old Men. But along with the occasional excesses, came the gorgeous lyricism — the fierce, delicate, lovely dark stretches for which he is properly celebrated. These, unhappily, are also largely missing in his latest go-round. It’s a fine book. And it has its pleasures, but they aren’t nearly so rich or so numerous as they have been in the past.