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BY STEVE KELLMAN No Country for Old Men By Cormac McCarthy Alfred A. Knopf 320 pages, $24.95 11111 4i 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 NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN CORMAC McCARTHY BOOKS & THE CULTURE All the Pretty Corpses 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 wheelchairbound ancient named Ellis. McCarthy offers more evidence of the killing than the love. And if southwest Texas is no country for old men, oldand young women are even less at home. Except as supportingand sustainingcharacters, 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 36year-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 psycho pathic 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 TrilogyA// the Pretty Horses The Crossing Cities of the Plain 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 vegetationspare, 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 Suttree 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. 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 22, 2005