Monday, January 28, 2008

No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy

Another novel recently made into a film that I've managed to read first. Unlike 'I Am Legend' though, this book's adaptation looks (and apparently is) very, very faithful to the source material, so much so that nigh on every line in the trailer seemed to the best of my recollection to be lifted verbatim from Cormac McCarthy's novel. Which is a good thing because the novel is propulsive and cinematic, and the story and subject matter seem to be suitable for the sensibilities of the guys who made Fargo.

'No Country for Old Men' is a bleak western thriller set in Texas in the early eighties that follows the criss crossing paths of three men. It begins with Llewellyn Moss, a relatively poor chap who works as a welder, coming across a drug deal gone bad in the middle of the desert. He comes across a bag full of money and makes the life changing decision to take it, knowing full well that it could be the end of him; he follows this choice with a really bad one that causes him to end up on the run. Anton Chigurh is an assassin / problem solver working for the drug buyers who comes looking for the money and picks up Moss's trail. Chigurh is a relentless and amoral being, a man of pure evil who believes himself to be merely an implement in a world of cause and effect, and he leaves a trail of corpses behind him in his quest. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is the man who has to deal with the aftermath of Chigurh as he tries to get to Moss first and save him, and also end the spate of killings.

The book is framed at the start of each chapter by ruminations from Sheriff Bell, who recounts his past and his thoughts on the country and how much it has changed for the worse. The main narrative jumps back and forth between the three protagonists as events unfold, with the consequences of those events being depicted from different perspectives. A word about the style of the book - it's quite unconventional and feels very abrupt. I mean that in a good way, as McCarthy really does (as the blurbs promise!) convey a great deal using few words, and creates a strong sense of place and character. The dialogue is superb; it's just sharp and to the point, full of curt exchanges and philosophical ruminations. It's also often quite hilarious. The style in which it is written makes it seem impossible for it to be read in anything but a 'Southern' accent, almost as if the accent is purely dictated by the style of speech.

Although it doesn't dwell much on backstory, the characters come to life vividly through their actions and speech. It's a non stop thrill ride that is hard to put down, and it features quite a few tense 'action' sequences and violent shootouts. Like I said, very cinematic. Though it also sometimes throws you for a loop by having things happen 'offscreen' where the reader is only entitled to the aftermath and is left to fill in the blanks. Which is very doable, even though I will confess a few plot points ended up eluding me. While a thriller on the surface, the book acts as a commentary on morality, the degradation of values in society, and the prevalence of evil and violence in the world, with the latter being embodied to great effect by the frightening Chigurgh. The character of Chigurgh is almost like a human terminator, relentless and unstoppable and impossible to bargain with; a force of nature.

'No Country for Old Men' is a terrific book, downbeat but compulsive and a fairly quick read that makes quite an impression. I don't necessarily fully agree with the sentiments expressed by the character of Bell (presumably they echo those of McCarthy), but I can see where they're coming from and a lot of what he says about society and the world are true; while I don't think people have necessarily become worse per se, modern society does facilitate base behaviour on a larger scale than it once did. In the midst of being thrilled and amused, the book leaves you with something to chew on and doesn't really offer a ray of sunshine at the end to make you feel better about the world. But don't let the pessimism put you off, as reading this book is worth your while.


Darwin said...

I watched the movie a few weeks back and I didn't really see the ending coming, it was rather abrupt. A quick scroll through IMDB set me straight though, I actually 'get' it now (yes I know that's cheating but still!).

Antimatter said...

Nothing wrong with trying to figure something out by reading other people's thoughts (beats calling it crap because you don't get it, which too many people do!). I've read that the ending is the same in the movie, which means it ends in a very atypical manner... not so strange for a book, but for a movie I guess it is.

Can't wait to see it!