Cormac McCarthy has established himself as one of the great American authors of the 20th century. His magnificent Border Trilogy, comprised of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities on the Plain, told the hardscrabble yet ethereal tale of John Grady Cole and Billy Parham as they roamed an exilic landscape of death, love, wonder, and guilt. In the 1985 classic Blood Meridian McCarthy created a strange and terrifying fusion of Milton, Conrad, Faulkner, and the cool parts of the New Testament. While his latest novel, No Country for Old Men (Knopf, 2005), continues the tradition of bloody, theological parable grandly begun by Outer Dark and Blood Meridian, it also evinces signs of a creative evolution the culminating gesture of which portends ill inasmuch as a book is at all deemed to be in some sense representative of the state of things.
The novel traces the aftermath of a drug deal gone awry: in the desert Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon a burned-out convoy with dead bodies strewn everywhere … along with a suitcase full of millions of dollars. He takes it, setting into motion a whirlwind of destructive consequences. In essence, it is the story of Macbeth: an initial crime committed for worldly gain precipitates a complicated chain of sanguinary events resulting in an increase of wisdom and a decrease of population. In some respects the novel reads like an intensified version of Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl, which examined the life of a poor pearl-diver following his recovery of a valuable pearl. Within the bounds of McCarthy’s own oeuvre, the novel most resembles his 1968 work Outer Dark which in the person of Culla Holme explored the archetype of the Wandering Jew whose expiatory expatiation is occasioned by an ancient crime.
Moss himself fits the familiar mould of the McCarthean protagonist (Holme, Suttree, Parham, the Kid, Cole, et al.): reticent and laconic, circumspect and resourceful, sincere if not moral, versed in the signs of nature, skilled in a respectable chunk of ways of contending. However, in opposition to Moss stands the enigmatic Anton Chiguhr (pronounced “sugar”), a freelancer who quickly abandons the charter of his nefarious employer in order to wreak his own mysterious ends over the earth. In all of McCarthy’s books a certain force of antagonism reigns, at times dissolved into a spectral haunting of the land itself and at times personalized into a culturally appropriate avatar – Chiguhr is just such an avatar. From the novel Suttree (1979):
“The city beset by a thing unknown and will it come from forest or sea? The murengers have walled the pale, the gates are shut, but lo the thing’s inside and can you guess his shape?”
In particular, Chiguhr reprises the character of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian. Sheriff Bell rhapsodizes him a “true and living prophet of destruction;” Bell’s particular phrase, recalling as it does the angry cavalcade of Ezekiels and Jeremiahs promising destruction unto the ever-erring Israelites, neatly complements the Biblical humor according to which Judge Holden was esteemed a “judge” – i.e., as a negative reflection of the law-restoring figures in Book of Judges.
McCarthy prefers a quality of landscape appropriate to a spaghetti western or an anchorite’s temptations: bleak, barren, and kenotic wastelands garnished only by an occasional, exiguous clump of vegetation or the physical accoutrement of a bland civilization in evident decline. So many motels figure in this book that it reaches a Kafkaesque pitch. In previous works, the land itself was a character, simmering with malevolence and alien, inscrutable spirituality “wholly other” to the purview of man. Here McCarthy is more subdued in his landscape-description: the nightmarish cameos of anti-Wordsworthian sentiment which enlivened previous works only appear a couple of times in No Country for Old Men.
At one point a malignly bored Chiguhr – who apparently has a penchant for dramatizing the Viconian account of originary jurisprudence in the Theocratic Age – orders an unsuspecting cashier to call a coinflip. The befuddled attendant complies, little realizing that his own life depends on the outcome. The Judge in Blood Meridian tells a similar tale of two men who, because they are so poor, have nothing to gamble with each other but their lives (yeah, it’s a pretty fucked-up book in case you were wondering). This is a favorite theme of McCarthy’s: the oblation of a life to pure hap in order to determine whether the world’s accumulation of circumstance and providence, its mystical patterns and chance swerves – in a word, God – should pronounce Yea or Nay at the critical moment to the continued existence of that living thing whose token was staked. The total effect of McCarthy is to valorize and re-enchant the mundane by reintroducing a potent sense of fate and death into the everyday.
Whatever redemption inheres in No Country for Old Men is meager and penumbral; anything more would not comport with the style and legacy of McCarthy. McCarthy is never so vulgar as to present some varnished platitude as literary tender. He is careful to undercut every positive pronouncement with the suitable management of context, tone, and ironic counterpoise. At the end of Outer Dark, a blind man discourses brilliantly and memorably about God….before promptly wandering into a swamp. A similar ending confronts the reader in No Country for Old Men which I refuse to spoil. The very last line of the book perfectly throws the preceding portion into question, tempering its positive appeal with just the right ironic gloss.
The narrative viewpoint itself cycles through the perspectives of Moss, Sheriff Bell, Chiguhr, and a few others. In addition, the italicized memoirs of Sheriff Bell preface each chapter, apparently dictated in a pensive funk ex post facto. Eventually, as the other perspectives fade from relevance or are snuffed from existence, Sheriff Bell assumes the lone voice of the book, and it is to him that all the pieces are left in the end. Bell, practically a card-carrying member of the greatest generation, is an elderly, avuncular, war-hero with a secret in his past. The real moral pith of the book consists in Bell’s postmillennial meditation and confession in the face of such reckless and unfathomable calamity. Sheriff Bell retires in order to ponder the weight of the last few weeks in relation to his life. He relinquishes his patriarchal post as the appointed officer of law and sanctified opponent of evil. After what he has seen, what point would there be? Bell is no longer capable of stomaching the theodical lie upon which his self-image and position appear predicated: the belief – eminently American – that the world with its contents is at bottom a place comfortable, cognizable, and perfectible. McCarthy militates against such a conception, apparently proposing in its stead a trackless waste of endless violence. For McCarthy, there is no question as to the ultimate failure of The Enlightenment. Sheriff Bell retires.
This is a novel, more than anything, about being desperately old and out-of-place in a brave new world with very bad people in it. Belatedness figures in many ways. Not only is McCarthy himself an old man, but even the literary period to which McCarthy should properly be assigned, Modernism, has been eclipsed and left behind. America has always been a young country both in chronological history and national spirit, and this seems unlikely to change. Bell reflects on a conversation with a death-row prisoner,
“Said he knew he was goin to hell. Told it to me out of his own mouth. I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t. I thought I’d never seen a person like that and it got me to wonderin if maybe he was some new kind….I didn’t know what to say to him. What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul? Why would you say anything?”
Are these those blasphemers of the Holy Spirit whom even Jesus (a notorious pushover) declared unforgivable? Are these those sinners whose sins were so grievous, Dante wrote, that their souls winged their way down to Hell immediately (the body being entrusted to
some middling devil’s animation for the remainder of its corporeal circuit)? No Country for Old Men has a noticeably contemporary flavor in contrast to earlier works which expertly made use of their preterite temporality: the forgotten savagery of colonial times harking back to the primeval, the weird haze of an extinct milieu, and above all the incipiency of a nation aborning and maturing into America the late-capitalist, commercial-industrial behemoth we all know and love. However, the “horror” of No Country for Old Men is not presented through the frame of a dying past or forgotten history, which prospects challenged the reader’s present only by way of contaminative influence or hidden assimilation. Instead, we read the novel through the frame of an emergent present and an up-and-coming condition of the future. Chiguhr and the like are a new kind of man. We are all old men in this sense, and thus the acute belatedness of McCarthy’s vision becomes universal.
McCarthy’s work is an eloquent and resolute exploration of the phenomenology of damnation and fallen-ness in its many forms and registers. All of his characters are in some sense “damned” – shut-out or closed-off irrevocably from normality or customary beatitude: Cornelius Suttree from genteel upbringing into the riparian encampment, Parham and Cole into their sorrowful Mexican Lehrjahre, the Kid into Nacogdoches and beyond, and Holme into endless backwoods wandering. No Country for Old Men continues the tradition into the contemporary present.