I read a lot of books and I read a lot of stuff on the internet. Sometimes I wish there was a better way to do these things together. There are communities online for so many things, and there are a lot of book-reading communities too, but somehow none of them work for me. Goodreads and various different subreddits are nice for finding new books to read, but there’s something that’s missing.
Sometimes when I finish a book, I am left with a rich, complicated, twisty set of thoughts in my head. I’m thinking to myself “That was a powerful book. Excellent. Now…” and then nothing. I want to discuss it with someone else who just finished reading the book at that very moment. But statistically maybe that person just doesn’t exist.
So, I will just write about it. What cripples this sort of conversation on most online forums is that 99% of the people interested in a particular book are people who are considering reading it, but haven’t read it yet. Probably 98% of those people won’t end up reading it. So the people with the most interesting thoughts on it have to dance around what they want to say, especially if the book is one where revealing secret information is a core part of the experience.
From here on out, any post with “Spoilers” in the title is just going to be chock-full of spoilers. Maybe this ruins the post for most of the potential audience. I am writing this post for the tiny number of people that has already read the book, No Country for Old Men, and wants to explore their own thoughts about it. If you happen to be willing to read about a book and accept that the plot will be spoiled, be my guest.
One extra point - if I write about a book in these “Spoilers” posts, that means I recommend that you read it. When I read a book I don’t like, I’m not going to bother writing about it.
On to the content.
No Country for Old Men
It is gripping. I made the mistake of starting this book a little bit before bedtime last night. It hooked me and I stayed up a couple hours later than I intended to reading it. The first 20 pages are intense.
I love the setting, of the Texas-Mexico border. Set in a time where a few of the characters are Vietnam veterans. There is a feeling of frontier emptiness. Like the characters are independent, free, simple, not really clicked into a society.
I don’t know if Cormac McCarthy uses a quotation mark in the whole book. The dialogue is stuff like:
What’s that? said Wendell.
Cylinder out of the lock.
Bell passed his hand over the plywood of the room-divider. Here’s where it hit at, he said. He balanced the piece of brass in his palm and looked toward the door. You could weigh this thing and measure the distance and the drop and calculate the speed.
I expect you could.
Pretty good speed.
Yessir. Pretty good speed.
They walked through the rooms. What do you think, Sheriff?
I believe they’ve done lit a shuck.
I do too.
Kindly in a hurry about it, too.
There is a simplicity of form. He also seems pretty opposed to adverbs. Does it relate to other simplicity? The simplicity of the characters? Sometimes.
There are three main characters. Moss, the guy who finds two million dollars of drug cartel money, doesn’t do a lot of internal reflection. He doesn’t turn the money over when the police ask him to, and he doesn’t seem to reflect on it much, either. It feels like he just snap-decides.
Chigurh, the killer, we don’t see his thoughts in the novel. But he delivers psychopathic lectures before killing people. Flips a coin to decide whether he’ll kill them or not. Explains why, according to his way of seeing the world, he has to kill someone.
Bell, the sheriff, we see plenty of his thoughts. Chunks of the book are just him telling the reader about his life and thoughts.
It’s an odd thing when you come to think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everwhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for being a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as a county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say that it is. Does it work? Yes. Ninety percent of the time. It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.
I feel like simple sentences make some of the characters simpler. It’s easier to portray a quiet killer or a quiet cowboy type by just leaving out most of the descriptive words. But Bell’s thoughts touch on life and death and ask questions that aren’t simple to answer. Apostrophes not required.
The real thing that makes this book a masterpiece is a huge twist near the end of the book. It feels like Moss is the protagonist, running from Chigurh. He’s the good guy, respecting his wife, taking a few risks, but generally smart and knows the land. You expect Moss to eventually escape with the money and be the guy who turns the tables on Chigurh. But no. The Mexican drug cartel simply kills everyone. Chigurh kills Moss’s wife, just to prove he’s the sort of guy that follows through when he threatens to kill someone’s wife. The drug cartel gets their money back. Bell can’t manage to catch anyone, can’t handle being the sheriff any more, and retires.
The book doesn’t even directly describe how Moss dies. For someone that feels like a protagonist for the first three quarters of the book, this is pretty crazy. I had to reread this section a few times to understand what was going on.
There’s three sections, separated by spaces that usually indicate a change of perspective. First section: Moss goes to bed, bidding good night to the hitchhiker he’s traveling with. Second section:
The Barracuda pulled into a truckstop outside of Balmorhea and drove into the bay of the adjoining carwash. The driver got out and shut the door and looked at it. There was blood and other matter streaked over the glass and over the sheetmetal and he walked out and got quarters from a change-machine and came back and put them in the slot and took down the wand from the rack and washed the car and rinsed it off and got back in and pulled out onto the highway going west.
This prose is really the opposite of David Foster Wallace. Instead of complicated words in forking trees of logic, it’s simple words that go from one simple activity to another simple activity. But it still creates a vivid picture. Terrible crime combined with everyday errands.
We haven’t seen a Barracuda (some car from the 60s/70s) before in the story. So all we know here is that someone is washing blood off their car. Some new character killed somebody. And then, the next section is Bell who stumbles across a new crime scene. He discovers that Moss was killed. Killed by a couple of characters that are presumably other employees of the drug cartel, who haven’t appeared in the story before this and don’t appear in the story again.
If it was a six year old writing a story, this sort of plot resolution would be unacceptable. But I can’t argue that it’s unfair. The irony is that Bell has been warning the whole time that Moss is going to get himself killed. And yet when it actually happened, I was taken by surprise.
Finally, although the main issue of the drug money is resolved, Chigurh hunts down Moss’s wife and kills her.
What does it mean?
Is it ridiculous how we expect novels to end happily? Maybe it weakens your mind for reading about real history, or analyzing the real world.
Is this more realistic? Drug cartels are still around, so in some sense they must be winning more battles than they are losing.
As the story ends, the only sympathetic thing remaining is Bell, reflecting on the meaningless deaths around him. I don’t often reflect on the presence of meaningless death in the world. It does seem like there is a lot of it, though. I have to give this novel credit.
When Moss took the money, I didn’t think too much about it. That sort of thing happens all the time in novels. By the end of the book, I realized that was his key mistake. He just never should have gotten involved. A chance at two million dollars wasn’t worth risking his decent life. And that’s a pretty legitimate conclusion, isn’t it? That seems to map to the real world. How can a novel have a lesson of “don’t risk your life for X” unless someone dies for it?
Somehow, after all this grisly drug violence, the book still makes me want to go out hiking through the Texas wasteland. But if I see a shot-out truck with a dead body inside, I’ll just call the cops. No need to investigate myself, first. Lesson learned.