Friday, May 18, 2007

No Country for Old Men: Thoughts

It’s a busy weekend this week, meaning I won't be able to post for the next few days. I’m posting an old review I wrote about Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men that was originally published in the Virginia Quarterly Review (also in that issue: three awesome stories, and an amazing essay on Vincent Desiderio's painting, Sleep--no link, you'll just have to order the issue) It’s a bit old, but my hope is that it will pair nicely with my thoughts on his newest (Pulitzer Prize winner) The Road (at a later date). Next week: comments on the George Tennet fall-out, gossip surrounding Wolfowitz’s desperate efforts to remain employed at the world bank, thoughts on 28 Weeks Later (possibly Shrek 3), and praise for my San Antonio Spurs. Busy, busy, busy:

When Ancient American History is taught in the Classics Departments of the future (a blip in the rear view of bigger and better empires), will Cormac MaCarthy be read at all? Why not? If any writer knew that the end was inevitable it was Cormac. Since Blood Meridian (but before then, too), McCarthy has been the Bard of a nation born into its own hell. Time spent with McCarthy has taken us through our own dark history: the genocide of the indigenous American peoples, the plague of fences and ownership that spread across the west, the development of atomic energy—the division of atoms, particles built so small only God could have made them (but that America was the first to undo). We are a country that has repeatedly failed to live up to its own expectations, while somehow at the same time contributing to newer and bigger horrors. It’s only a matter of time before we do ourselves in. And then who’ll feel sorry for us? Not Cormac.

In his new book, No Country for Old Men, McCarthy follows the bodies through Vietnam and into the 80’s (or early 90’s, it’s never really clear), where drug cartels grow fat on our sin and pick their teeth with our fluid morality. Once again, McCarthy writes about an everyman caught in the riptide of history. This man, Llewelyn Moss, is retired vet who finds a bag of cash amid the ruins of a busted drug deal; while another, holding one of the many guns to be found here, coldly deciphers destinies with a clear eyed understanding of the place where all paths end (despite our best efforts): Anton Chigurh (pronounced like “sugar”, which displays a similarity to…you guessed it) himself a Vietnam vet but of a different stripe. The fact that both men spent time overseas soldiering for the American dream is significant. While they were away, their generation, full of self-importance, perfected decadence. Drugs became “cool”. The devil selling everyone on the idea that drugs made us “free” and “freed our minds” or made love “free”. Not an apple exactly...but close. During this book, McCarthy can sound like a crotchety old man, but he’s dead on in recognizing that this popularization of drugs (escapism) paved the way for a narcotic that is dissolving our nationalist borders and seeping into the veins of our youth. Both men return to a different country. Moss holds to the old beliefs, having processed the experience of Vietnam well—living in a trailer with his wife the way most good people in McCarthy books do, somewhere just above the poverty line but not starving. Chigurh, like Judge Holden of Blood Meridian (only more somber, more composed—maybe even more corporate?) returns and sees evil to be done, and if not evil, then a good bit of corruption. But what is evil if not an outlet for the certainty of good intentions? Here, like in Elliot, evil is more pure than intent. In McCarthy’s world, the Bible’s first story solidified the foundation (balance: what something is and what something isn’t), the notion of knowledge and its power corrupting what is right and wrong (Llewelyn and Chigurh). Between these two is a Sheriff, a man older than both who remembers things before Vietnam and drugs, who finds himself trying to prevent the collision of these two lost boys in the hopes that this will somehow redeem his faith in “this country”. But he is old, and if you thought it would work out, you didn’t read the title. It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that things don’t go exactly as planed—for any of the men (even Chigurh receives some comeuppance in the end, satisfying for those of us who stood horrified as Judge Holden danced merrily into the night). What is more surprising about McCarthy’s book is his prose and the drastic change in style (Faulkner laid to rest), bone white in its efficiency and bleached by the sun until all that’s left are simple sentences and descriptions (nouns and verbs) and dialogue written as if Raymond Chandler landed in Texas and were made deputy. Surprises are unearthed from what is not on the page, both regarding words (art) and actions (plot—several significant scenes and major deaths happen off page). It is the Sheriff who is left to remind us that life in “this country” is about “...defeat. It was being beaten. More bitter to him than death.” His revelation is, simply to, “You need to get over that.” And there’s the rub. It’s what makes living during this American age of history so hard, where morality has long been nurtured by corruption and greed and destruction. The end result is no more likely to change than Chigruh’s coin landing on heads.

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