"No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy. Reviewed by ~micmex-tilnym

by ~darlur, published on

When first published in 2005, many reviewers seemed caught off guard by Cormac McCarthy's latest book No Country for Old Men. Is this Lee Child, or the author of Blood Meridian we're talking about? Is he angling for a movie deal? Did the old man decide to cut into the airport paperback market?

The reviewers were not wrong to notice a change. No Country was originally a film script McCarthy had written in the 1980s, and is rumored to have had a much more "Hollywood" ending, with Anton Chigurh getting his just deserts by page 120. Thankfully, that version never made it into a willing producer's hands, and McCarthy, years later, instead adapted the script into the book we know.

The major difference between book and eventual film is the heavy focus on Ed Tom Bell. With his personal anecdotes before each chapter, his recollections frame all the action that follows. While his powerlessness and concern at his inability to understand the nature of evil he is forced to witness disturbs him (a feeling that anyone with access to the media can no doubt relate to), we as the readers do not have this problem. In fact, just the opposite.

The interesting tension of the book is one in which the reader is made privy to the events that lead up to the violent scenes that sheriff Ed Tom Bell comes across. He is a man who does not understand the newly vicious destruction around him. We, as readers, understand it perfectly, not through hackneyed backstory but because this is a genre story. Capable rugged hero gets knocked around but never gives up, antagonist is "unstoppable" in the most delightful ways, and faceless henchmen get caught in the crossfire. In fact, if you remove Ed Tom Bell, you have a book that really could be sold at any airport's Hudson News.

This, from a writer's perspective, is the challenge: as a work of art, how do you best convey to your reader the feeling at the heart of the book? That, if you live long enough, there really is no country for old men? One could argue that McCarthy's paring down of his prose is a way to accomplish this task. We bear witness as the Sheriff does. But Cormac pushes the premise further and this is the master stroke: he uses genre against the reader by having what should be a climactic moment occur off page. It doesn't make sense. The world is thrown out of order and we arrive too late, to stare uncomprehending at the bloody aftermath.

This is why it is so important that McCarthy follows genre conventions in his only "genre" novel. Only by substituting worldly order with genre can McCarthy give readers both a comprehensive story, and thrust us out of an ordered world right beside Ed Tom Bell. In the age of "serious" genre fiction, No Country remains one of the best examples of genre intentionally used to artistic ends.

(Note: this is also why the book will always be outshined by the film adaptation: a film viewer is not in control of the pace of story. Dying off page means flipping back a few pages to see if you missed something- dying off screen leaves the viewer bearing helpless witness, just as Ed Tom Bell is forced to. A purer distillation of artistic intent.)