No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
The first time I read No Country for Old Men was in 2007. I burned through the book the weekend before the release of the Coen Brothers’ Best-Picture-winning film adaptation. It is my favorite film, and McCarthy has since become one of my favorite authors. I’ve read most of his work and have seen the film for No Country a half dozen times, but I wanted to go back and try the book again to see how it fares. It fares well.
No Country is sparse. Unlike the deep tangles of other McCarthy novels that have you reaching for a dictionary every other page (Suttree and Blood Meridian come to mind), the language is simple. It almost reads like a screenplay.
On its surface, it is about a man, Llewelyn Moss, a Viet Nam vet and a retired welder, who finds a satchel full of money in the desert near the scene of a bloody shootout. Dead bodies are scattered about, and there’s a truck loaded with drugs. Moss, knowing very well the danger it might put him in, takes the satchel anyway. In doing so, he makes a choice that sets in motion a hellstorm of violence. He is pursued by a psychopathic killer named Anton Chigurh, along with other faceless drug cartel members. Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, and other secondary characters are pulled into the fray. And one step behind, one step slow, trying to make sense of it all (and the clearest embodiment of the “old men” in the title) is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.
In the film, the character of Anton Chigurh is memorably played by Javier Bardem. He won the Oscar for Best Support Actor for the role, and it’s hard to not picture him when you read the book. Chirgurh is hired to retrieve the case of money, and he seems unstoppable in that quest. He is, some readers contend, death incarnate—representative of an unstoppable natural phenomenon. Carson Wells, one of the characters who steps into Chigurh’s path, compares him to the Bubonic Plague. He has a mysterious past, a calm demeanor, and a devout belief in chance.
This is a main theme of the novel, the theme McCarthy seems to be wrestling with via his characters. Much of the existential dialogue, sometimes bordering on Socratic debate, revolves around the role of chance and the unknowable consequences of our smallest decisions.
Llewelyn Moss exists on the side of self-determination. He is as capable a protagonist as anyone could hope for. A good shot, a quick wit, tough as dirt. He’s a hero befitting an action film set in west Texas. In fact, one might find in Moss’s DNA old Western heroes like John Wayne. It’s as if one of the great Western heroes was lifted from the security of his “cowboys vs indians” shootouts and dropped into the bloodbath that is the modern drug war, complete with machine guns and sociopathic killers. Moss is the kind of character in complete control of his fate. If he’s not determining his fate, there’s little hope for any of us.
But after he decides to take the case full of money, there is very little of the plot that he controls. He acts, often with cunning, but it is a reaction to the events. He is like a man in a wild river, able to stay afloat but with no ability to alter the course of the water.
Chigurh, on the other hand, believes that we are all at the mercy of chance. He embraces luck. Before he murders innocent bystanders, he sometimes gives them an opportunity to call a coin flip. Early on, at a remote gas station, he engages in conversation with the man behind the counter. He asks the man what’s the most he’s ever lost on a coin toss. By this point, the reader knows exactly what is at stake, but the man is confused. He doesn’t want to wager anything on a coin toss. It doesn’t make any sense. A coin toss doesn’t mean anything.
Chigurh is almost incredulous. To him, a coin toss and what it represents means everything. You can’t “separate the act from the thing. As if parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment.” Everything in the life of the man and the life of Chigurh have brought them to this moment. Even the coin is significant. “It’s been traveling 22 years to get here. And now it’s here.”
This encounter mirrors a scene at the end of the book, where Carla Jean also argues with Chigurh about the coin flip. But her argument is not about the metaphysics of the moment. Appropriate to her character, she makes the argument personal. She tells Chigurh that he is the one in control: “You make it like it was the coin. But you’re the one.”
“It could have gone either way,” Chigurh says.
But Carla Jean knows she’s right. “The coin didn’t have no say. It was just you.” It is a more insightful argument than Wells makes, but it does her no good.
These are the kinds of details I enjoyed the second time through this book. The purpose of each character (McCarthy is an author you can count on to have considered the meaning of everything in his books) and how they serve not just the plot but the theme. Like that Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson in the film) serves so perfectly as the antithesis of Chigurh’s superstitious worldview. He is befuddled in his debate with Chigurh, eventually resorting to just calling Chigurh crazy.
“The nature of this conversation?” Chigurh asks.
“The nature of you,” Wells replies.
Wells is so blind to the role of luck that in one scene, he notes that a building appears to be “missing a floor,” presumably unaware that many buildings intentionally have no “unlucky” thirteenth floor. Or another part in which Wells, examining the scene of a shootout, astutely notices two bullet holes high on an apartment building. When he goes into an apartment to investigate, he finds an old woman who had been sitting in her rocking chair when one bullet came through the wall and hit her in the head, killing her. “Not what you had in mind at all, is it darling?” Wells says. He also notices a bullet hole in the calendar on the wall, but fails to think anything significant of the date marked by the hole—three days hence. It’s some not-too-subtle foreshadowing, but Wells is only equipped to see physical evidence; he is blind to metaphysical clues, and he will pay for it.
And then there is the character of Ed Tom Bell, played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones in the film. Arguably, perhaps, despite all the death in the novel, I find Bell to be the most tragic character. The motivations of Moss and Chigurh are clear—get away with the money, retrieve the money. But Bell has much more depth as a character. He is of two worlds that are quickly being consumed by this new form of evil: he represents the people of west Texas, people who are “common as dirt” (and he considers that a good thing). And he is of a lineage of law enforcement, telling stories of Texas Rangers, of shootouts with Mexicans. He is of solid, simple stock. Like the old Westerns, he believes in a clear-cut delineation between good and bad.
He is our moral lens through which we consider the action. Each chapter starts with an italicized monologue from Bell, and he engages in conversations with other characters—his wife and his uncle—about what he sees. So we get his thoughts directly. And Bell is struggling. He is trying and failing to comprehend this modern world. Some of it comes across as an old person complaining about the young. Bell comments on a girl with green hair and a bone in her nose. When he sits next to a liberal at a fundraising event who comments that she doesn’t like the direction the country is headed, that she wants her granddaughter to be able to have an abortion, he replies that she doesn’t need to worry—the way the country’s headed, not only will she be able to have an abortion, “she’ll be able to have you put to sleep.” He then adds, in dry Sheriff Bell humor, “Which pretty much ended the conversation.”
But the most harrowing stories are those where Bell recognizes how outmatched he is. In one story, he talks about how all the mason jars were sold out in towns along the Texas-Mexico border, because over in Mexico, the cartels were using them to hold their grenades. They could pull the pin of the grenades and shove them into mason jars, then throw the grenades from helicopters onto rival cartels without the grenades blowing up midair. The image of the mason jar—evoking family gardens and old ladies preserving their peaches, but now used by drug cartels raining death from above—is a simple but acute encapsulation of the monumental shift Bell has witnessed.
In another story, he talks about how they found a cartel plane in the middle of the Texas desert and a deputy suggested they just wait for the cartel members to return to it. When they tell the deputy that nobody’s coming back for it, the idea that the criminals they’re fighting have so much money they can just abandon an entire plane settles in uneasily. They are all clearly outmatched.
“It takes very little to govern good people,” Bell says. “Very little at all. And bad people can’t be governed at all.” Early on, he assumes Moss is one of the bad people. That he’s running drugs. But Bell comes to understand that Moss and Carla Jean are actually the kind of people he’s supposed to be protecting. And in the end he decides he can’t do it.
“I always thought I could at least some way put things right,” Bell tells his wife. “And I guess I don’t feel that way anymore…I’m being asked to stand for something I don’t have the same belief in as I once did.”
She says she understands. Says, “You aim to quit while you’re ahead?”
“No ma’am,” he says. “I just aim to quit. I ain’t ahead by a damn sight. I never will be.”
There is a moment at the end of No Country where Bell pulls up to a crime scene and senses that Chigurh is there. It’s the only time Bell comes close to the bad guy. We expect a shootout. We expect a confrontation. A reckoning. But Bell backs out. He decides not to face the darkness.
I came across a 2008 sermon by a pastor named Jacob Jurado of the First Church of God in Rapid City, South Dakota, in which he discusses Bell’s dilemma. He sees Bell’s turning away as a complete failure. A failure to confront the evil of the world in the way we’re all morally obligated to do—Bell even more so because of his badge. And that’s the hard tragedy of No Country. It’s not the deaths of likable characters. It’s the turning away of the good Sheriff Bell. Our old Western heroes never turn away from a fight. They don’t cower in the face of evil, no matter how great. We would rather see our hero die fighting at the end of the novel, at the end of the movie, than put his badge in the drawer and hang up his old gun.
But it is hard to hold it against Sheriff Bell.