All the Pretty Corpses BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN No Country for Old Men By Cormac McCarthy Alfred A. Knopf 320 pages, $24.95 hat is no country for old men,” complains the aging poet. In William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” he flees a verdant, vibrant land of salmon falls and mackerel-crowded seas. Anxious to escape the fatal natural cycle of “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies,” he travels to the holy city of Byzantium, capital of immortalizing artifice. Its title winks at Yeats, but Cormac McCarthy sets his ninth novel in sparse country that, though also pitiless toward old men, is not exactly crowded with mackerel. Except for brief excursions into Odessa, San Antonio, Houston, and Piedras Negras, the grisly plot of No Country for Old Men unfolds in the vacant, arid Texas borderlands between Eagle Pass and El Paso. “This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it,” observes a wheelchair-bound ancient named Ellis. McCarthy offers more evidence of the killing than the love. And if southwest Texas is no country for old men, old—and young—women are even less at home. Except as supporting—and sustaining—characters, they have no place in McCarthy’s fiction. The time is the 1980s and, in the opening scene, it is very late at night. Tracking antelope, a solitary hunter named Llewelyn Moss stumbles onto a grisly tableau: eight bullet-riddled corpses testify to a drug transaction gone awry. Moss has no interest in the heroin, but, knowing that his life will never be the same, he snatches a satchel containing $2.4 million. A 36-year-old welder, proud of the resourcefulness that got him through Vietnam, Moss realizes immediately that he will be sought by very violent men. After he and his young wife, Carla Jean, abandon their trailer in Sanderson, Moss puts her on a bus to her grandmother in Odessa, while he holes up in a motel in Del Rio. Carson Wells, a former lieutenant colonel in Army Special Forces, is dispatched from a hidden office suite in Houston to recover the drug money. Hit men from a rival operation set out on the same mission. A psychopathic freelancer named Anton Chigurh revels in outwitting and outliving them all. “Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction,” says a middle-aged sheriff who is loath to confront the likes of Chigurh, a homicidal specter who allows himself to be arrested merely in order to test his skill at detaching his shackles and killing the jailer. More than six years have passed since McCarthy last appeared in print, with the final installment in his Border Trilogy—All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1999). He now returns to the same lunar landscape from which John Grady Cole and Billy Parham each rode off into Mexico. Careful use of terms such as caldera, talus, candelilla, and catclaw demonstrate that McCarthy is as conversant with the special geology and botany of la frontera as he is with Canjar triggers, Unertl telescopic sights, and H&K machine pistols. Readers of the Border Trilogy make their way through lush, luxuriant, plangent prose. However, No Country for Old Men makes do with native vegetation—spare, understated sentences that are the literary equivalent of carrizo cane, a meager plant that has survived by adapting to the ambient desolation. The new novel lacks lyrical effusions or anything else that might distract a reader from the brutal pursuit of Llewelyn Moss. To find a book as gory as this one you might have to go back to McCarthy’s own Blood Meridian (1985) or Suttree (1979). Like Flannery O’Connor, he has constructed a fable of unrelenting violence in service to a meditation on irremediable evil. Page by page, McCarthy depopulates the already undercrowded expanses of southwest Texas. “How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?” asks Chigurh, and the question haunts this entire account of rampant slaughter, as opposing soldiers in the drug wars chase Moss and wreak havoc. McCarthy occasionally leavens the grim reaping with dark humor, as when Moss, slipping out of a hospital bed in Piedras Negras, attempts to cross back over into the United States wearing nothing but an overcoat. “We need to hear more about why you’re out here with no clothes on,” states the border guard at the start of a droll exchange. Trailing behind the mayhem is Ed Tom Bell, the courtly, conscientious lawman of Terrell County who still conducts some of his official business on horseback, and at his own expense. Dismissed by Wells as “a redneck sheriff in a hick town in a hick county. In a hick state,” Bell nevertheless commands the reader’s respect. In a world that the sheriff himself insists “is goin to hell in a handbasket,” Bell is a fading voice of decency. Chapters that consist of his italicized thoughts alternate with terse accounts of the aftermath of Moss’s decision to take the money and run. A decorated World War II veteran, Bell observes a world very different from the one in which, at age 25, he was first elected to uphold the peace in placid Terrell County. He does not know what to make of youngsters sporting green hair and bones in their noses. And he notes that 40 years ago teachers named talking in class, chewing gum, and running in hallways as the most serious educational problems, whereas today rape, arson, murder, drugs, and suicide lead the list. According to Bell, the erosion of civility has led to widespread contempt for the law: “Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.” Bell recalls more gracious times when a sheriff could go to work without wearing firearms. But within the mid-1980s he could consult McCarthy’s own Blood Meridian and Larry McMurtry’s frontier novels for gruesome evidence that the Texas border has never been a country for old men, on account of the fact that few young men survived the brutal war of all against all. However, the carnage into which Moss is drawn offers Bell conclusive proof of an unprecedented new breed of violent miscreants, driven by drugs and greed to a nihilistic disregard for human life. Chigurh even displays contempt for avian life; he stops by the side of a road near Del Rio to take a gratuitous shot at a large bird perched on a guardrail. The country, according to Bell, will soon be overrun by Chigurhs. “If you killed em all,” he tells a deputy, “they’d have to build a annex on to hell.” Stymied by the first unsolved murders within his jurisdiction in the past four decades, he decides to retire from law enforcement: “I feel like them old people I was talkin about. Which aint goin to get better neither. I’m bein asked to stand for somethin that I dont have the same belief in it I once did.” Suspense over whether Moss will elude killers intent on retrieving the missing drug money keeps a reader turning pages. But it is the character of Bell who sets one thinking. Burdened by secret shame, his moot belief that he did not deserve the Bronze Star he was awarded for valor in France, and graced by the love of his devoted wife, Loretta, he interprets his life as a blessing and a continuing lesson in humility. “It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you really are and even then you might be wrong,” says the sheriff who, for all that, is closer to genuine self-knowledge than any other character in the novel. “The people I know are mostly just common people,” Bell boasts about his fellow salt-of-the-earth Texans to an abortion-rights advocate who dismisses the entire species as hopelessly “right wing.” Sanderson, Texas, is a long way from Washington, D.C., and, though he mentions attending “cemetery cleanins” during his campaigns for sheriff, Bell makes few explicit statements about politics. Yet it seems likely that he would have voted for Ronald Reagan, another uxorious husband who also imagined the world as an arena for combat against evil and advanced his fortunes by appearing bemused over his own good fortune. “I don’t recall that I ever give the good Lord all that much cause to smile on me,” Bell notes. “But he did.” Though Bell maintains that truth is absolute and simple, the novel that assigns him its first and last words is fraught with complications. The sheriff is troubled by the execution of a man for a crime he did not commit. And, unlike right-wing Texans who use the Bible to legitimize their certitude about everything, Bell makes sparing references to ambiguous passages in the Scriptures only to emphasize his ignorance about their interpretation. Through the eyes of this honest, anxious sheriff, No Country for Old Men projects a worldview that has more in common with Beowulf than Bible-thumping homily—just beyond civilization’s frail walls lurk invincible monsters. We are a vulnerable target. And so’s the old man. Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His latest book, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, will be published in August by W. W. Norton.
Steven G. Kellman is the author of The Restless Ilan Stavans: Outsider on the Inside and American Suite. He teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.