I think it’s fitting that I finished my Cannonball this year with another Cormac McCarthy novel. Ever since I discovered McCarthy, I’ve read one book of his per year. His books are amazing but intense, so I take nice long breaks in between. I’d been waiting to read No Country for Old Men (2006) because I’d seen the movie when it first came out, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about reading a McCarthy novel where I already knew what was going to happen.
Although there were times as I was reading, caught up in the tense struggle, that I wished I didn’t already know the outcome,
it didn’t change my appreciation of this novel. McCarthy tells the story of Moss, a Vietnam Vet in his 30’s who stumbles upon a drug transaction gone wrong in the middle of the desert. He grabs a suitcase filled with money and takes off home. Bell is the old sheriff in that area, old-fashioned and canny, dealing with the previous unheard of destruction of life that the drug trade has brought to his corner of the world. The other main character is Chigurch, a true psychopath on the trail of Bell, trying to recover the money and literally killing everyone in his path. His heartlessness and lack of fear is terrifying.
I did find No Country for Old Men to be one of McCarthy’s relatively easier books to read, after The Road. There is clear tension and suspense in the chase between Moss and Chigurch, which makes it hard to put the book down. Moss is a relatable and likable character, and it is easy to root for him. McCarthy doesn’t spell out too much for the benefit of his readers. I was always getting Moss, Bell, and Wells confused (seriously similar names), but it’s not too hard to follow along. I’d definitely recommend reading it (and really, all of McCarthy’s books), whether you’ve seen the movie or not.
McCarthy is a master at using simple, terse language that unexpectedly digs into your gut. Moss’s death is tragic, but it is even more tragic because it was his humanity that led to his destruction. If he hadn’t come back to bring water back to a dying man, they probably wouldn’t have been able to find him. And if he’d killed Chigurch as soon as he had his gun on him, he and his wife might have survived. Indeed, Moss’s wife is a whole other layer of tragedy. Completely innocent and caught up in circumstances beyond her control, she is killed for no reason other than Chigurch’s twisted and uncompromising moral standards. And what makes it even worse, is that when she dies she’s heard that her husband had taken up with a teenage runaway and that Moss had the chance to save her and chose not to.
Perhaps knowing some of the story allowed me to concentrate on some other aspects of McCarthy’s writing this time. For instance, birds were a common leitmotif throughout the novel, adding another element to the tone and characters. A cop is driving the stolen cop car back from whence it came–with the body of a murdered driver still shoved in the trunk–creepy, but probably the easiest way to get the body where it needed to go. The cop pulls off to the side of the road when he sees a dead hawk in the middle of the road, it’s wing fluttering in the wind. He picks it up by the wing and drops it on the side. I cannot explain the visceral reaction I had to the combination of the macabre idea of driving around a dead body in the trunk and the imagery of a dead hawk’s wing flying in the wind in the road, but it felt something like when you wake up from a nightmare.
Finally, I wanted to mention Bell’s character because he’s one of the few truly good guys in the story: honest, caring, smart, and loves his wife. You read most of the story thinking that you understand him and where he comes from, but near the end you find out that he’s got more layers than you’d think: secrets from the war that he’s even afraid to tell his wife. It makes you rethink what you had assumed about him.
It’s all truly great writing. I’m going to take about a year to digest his one, and then move on to another next year.
“Anyway, you never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” (267)
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