I sometimes think of myself as a smart man.
But I’m not a smart man. I’m just interested in a lot of things, so I have a tendency to look into a lot of things. That gives me a broad but fairly shallow knowledge base upon which I can build my reality. Since I go wherever my interests direct me, I can’t always predict where I’ll be, or what I’ll experience. When I try and set a course, I find that I start to drift with the currents until I find myself in a place wholly unexpected and often unrecognizable.
Cormac McCarthy is frequently accused of being the greatest living American writer. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but I read The Road about a dozen years ago and found it both grueling and affecting. I still think about it sometimes, but haven’t had the courage to revisit it now that I’ve become a father. Because I enjoyed that book so much, and know he’s held in such high regard by people who know a lot more than I do, I’ve always meant to come back his work.
Well, Audible has a number of his books available for free (to members). Being that I can’t actually read Cormac McCarthy because, you know, I like punctuation, I thought his audiobooks might be worth a shot.
And, it turns out, I absolutely loved this book. Like, to a degree I don’t fully comprehend.
The first half of this book was an absolute page turner. To anyone familiar with the movie, all the familiar scenes are here. And they’re just as captivating as they were in the movie. The source material really lives up to the expectations set by the film- which says a lot, I think. But surrounding this narrative are the musings of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, which come after the events of the novel, and some stylistic flourishes that one should expect from McCarthy. For instance, most of the action occurs before the narrative, so that we are often reading about events that have just happened “off screen”. Surprisingly, this didn’t bother me – though it could be jarring.
What I really wrestled with here was what, exactly, this book is about. On its surface, it’s the story of Llewellyn Moss. He’s hunting pronghorns along the Mexican border in Texas, when he comes across a drug deal gone wrong. There are dead bodies everywhere, and a vehicle full of heroin and a dying man asking for water. Llewellyn tracks the last man standing, only to find him dead with a satchel full of $2.4 million in cash. He takes the money and leaves, stashing the money at his house. Anton Chigurh is a hitman hired to recover the lost money. The rest of the book is Chigurh trying to do just that, and Llewellyn running for his life.
But that’s just the vehicle for McCarthy to….tell a story that isn’t really about Llewellyn Moss or Anton Chigurh. And this is where we get back to me not being very smart – because I don’t really know what the point of it all is. War seems to play a central role in this book. Published in 2005 during the Iraq War, Llewellyn Moss was a Vietnam veteran (as was another man hunting Moss, Carson Wells), and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell was a WWII veteran. War is a strong throughline for all the characters, as is the frontier violence of Texas history.
Also relevant is a nihilistic inevitability that all characters must grapple with. Sheriff Bell is trying to rectify running from death in the war and failing to save his fellow soldiers by becoming sheriff and trying to save Moss. Anton Chigurh sees himself as being a kind of vessel for fate, and adheres to a strict, fatalistic code of ethics that requires him killing so many people. Llewellyn has the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head the entire novel, and his fate even pulls in his wife, Carla Jean. If anything ties all these characters together, it is how they all have different approaches to dealing with fate: Bell is trying to change it, Anton is trying to enforce it, and Moss is trying to flee from it.
Something that constantly stood out to me was the philosophical asides by Sheriff Bell that bracket the chapters. They are seemingly disconnected from the narrative, and more represent how a conservative old man is trying to make sense of the changing world around him. He’s befuddled by the incomprehensible violence of the cartels and Chigurh, and doesn’t understand how the younger generation behaves (“nose piercings and green hair”), but he’s also ashamed of his own generation relative to how he sees the one that preceded him. Bell idolizes his grandfather. Towards the end of the book, he opens up to his uncle about his great shame from WWII and proclaims that his grandfather never would’ve fled death the way he, Sheriff Bell, did. Ellis, his uncle, disagrees with his understanding of his grandfather – undermining his entire worldview.
What does all of this mean?
I don’t know. It’s too fresh. I just finished this book, and haven’t really had time to grapple with it.
But death, fate, the passage of time, and the inability to reconcile who we are and what we want with how our lives actually play out seem to be at the center of it all. I don’t have any answers, and maybe that’s the underlying theme of this whole book. We are all constrained by the decisions we’ve made along the way, and can only be in the future what our pasts have prepared us for.
I need more time to process this book.