First published in July of 2005, ‘No Country For Old Men’ was American author Cormac McCarthy’s ninth novel to be published. The title for the novel is taken directly from the first line of William Butler Yeats’ 1928 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, whose first stanza was suitably apt for the story at hand.
It’s the 1980’s and along the border between the United States and Mexico in southwest Texas, Vietnam War veteran turned welder, Llewelyn Moss, is out hunting antelope. However, it’s not long before Moss comes across the seemingly deserted aftermath of a high-stake drug deal gone wrong. The sole survivor amongst the victims of the gun battle is a critically-wounded Mexican sitting in one of the bullet-riddled vehicles. Whilst evaluating the situation in front of him, Moss discovers a holdall filled with $2.4m in used notes as well as numerous packages of heroin. Moss takes the decision to flee the scene with the money, leaving the wounded Mexican alone in the quiet and desolate wilderness of the desert.
After returning home to the comfort of his wife Carla Jean Moss, Llewelyn begins to build up a feeling of remorse for leaving the Mexican to die in the desert without any help or rescue. Moss decides to return to the scene of the gunfight with a jug of water for the Mexican. However, when he arrives he finds that the Mexican had recently been executed. As he attempts to once again flee the scene he realises that he is now being hunted down. In utter desperation he narrowly manages to escape with only a minor bullet wound to show for his mistake.
Llewelyn, returns to his home with the terrible realisation dawning on him that whoever was chasing him could easily take the details off of the truck that he abandoned at the scene, and using these they could find out who he is and where he lives. After stealing such a huge sum of their money, there was no way that they would let it rest. And so he tells his wife to go and stay with her sick mother in Odessa, whilst he takes the money away with him in order to somehow sort out the dangerous dilemma he has gotten himself and very possibly his loved ones into.
After one of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s deputies is murdered at the hands of the ghost like hitman Anton Chigurh, the Sheriff is drawn into the full investigation of the failed drug deal and resulting carnage. Bell, a fifty-year-old local sheriff who is still troubled by his actions during World War II, uncovers the accidental involvement of the local welder Llewelyn into the situation, and takes it upon himself to do all he can to help this man who is now on the run. However, the psychopathic hitman Chigurh is now also after Llewelyn. As is another, much more forgiving hitman named Carson Wells.
Everything is centred on Moss, who is only now beginning to realise the extent of the troubles he has put himself and his loved ones into. Wherever Moss runs, the shadow of Chigurh is always close behind, leaving a long line of corpses in his wake. Moss must abandon everything in his life in order to simply survive. But how far must he go to give up on everything that he once loved? Life is hard these days, and violence is always just around the next corner...
Written predominantly in the third-person perspective, McCarthy does however intersperse the novel with short passages of text from a first-person perspective, from that of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. These passages come as a calm sited outlook on the unfolding situation of the man hunt, at the beginning of each one of the novel’s chapters. The result is a very personal and human response to the desperation portrayed throughout the tale. These recurring and well contrived insights into the thoughts, feelings and life of the sheriff, bring out a close and connected relationship between the reader and this principal character.
McCarthy’s highly revered prose is as stark and dissecting of the language as ever. Dialogue is portrayed in a vividly flat and altogether realistic way. The simple stripped away rawness of McCarthy’s writing conjures up a truly mesmerising and brutal voice for the callous story.
The human touch is evident throughout the storyline, creating great crevices of anguish for the characters and their loved ones. Moss becomes the perfect example of our ego at lucking upon a fortune and further escaping with it intact. However, the stark reality of the resulting manhunt and unforgiving attitude of Moss’s principle assailant cuts away at the readers nerves exposing the brutal truth of our dog-eat-dog world.
Each shot fired and hit taken by those within the story thunders through the text. Each wound penetrates through vividly depicted flesh, making the pain, suffering and debilitating wound feel physically 'real' to the reader. Further still the unrelenting brutality of the violence and the unceremonious nature of murder are forced to the very front of the tale. The world suddenly feels a thousand times harsher. Life itself feels too delicate. Everything is on edge.
The constant need for impactful ‘decision making’ is an ongoing and important recurring theme throughout the tale. Whichever choice is taken will always have its own repercussions. Magnified by the desperation of the plot, this all too familiar notion leads to the reader being left on constant tender hooks.
McCarthy is obviously a man of traditional values, whose stance on life prevails through the text. The slow downfall of modern day society is placed at the forefront of the story, matching its downbeat message with an equally downbeat story.
The concluding few chapters are initially surprising in their outcome, which is subsequently dealt with in a hauntingly realistic manner. Indeed, when the story punches the reader with the utterly unforeseen and monumentally surprising twist in the tale, the resulting text becomes more like the reader is following the news than reading a piece of fiction. The brutality and finality of the situation slices through the text, leaving the reader gasping for air with the unannounced savagery of such an important development to the tale.
The final direction that McCarthy adopts emphasises the core values that he clearly feels have a strong importance. Bell is now allowed to become the sole narrator to the final pages of the tale, his words giving an honest air to the bludgeoned feelings shared by himself and the reader. The final pages allow for a human viewpoint, with nerves ripped raw and emotions battered, of such an uncompromising conclusion.
The story was later adapted into the 2007 film that was directed by the Coen brothers which achieved a great deal of critical acclaim, resulting in four Academy Awards, three BAFTA’s and two Golden Globes.
The novel runs for a total of 309 pages.
© DLS Reviews