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February 15, 2008

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

Book 9 of my 52 books in 2008

I'm going to have a lot of trouble reviewing this without spoiling the story for you. I'll try, but am not promising anything, so if you haven't read it, or seen the multi Oscar nominated film version from the Coen brothers, then look away now.

This is a bleak story, which starts off violently, continues in that vein, then somehow manages to get even grimmer by the end. If you're looking for some glimmer of hope, some redemption, you're going to be disappointed, because just about everyone loses in one way or another in the end.

It starts off fairly conventionally. A man named Moss finds a pile of money that was supposed to be used in a drugs transaction, and he takes it. The people who own the money want it back, so he goes on the run. A violent psychopath called Chigurh is one of the people chasing him, and this man is one of the scariest people you'll encounter in fiction. The local sheriff tells quite a lot of the story in first person, and the book is really about him. The story however climaxes a bit too soon, and the rest of the book then clears up a few loose ends (though nowhere near all) and judders to a kind of stop.

Like a lot of fiction, the narrative action itself isn't really the thing that's most important. It's what keeps you reading of course, an essay on the topic wouldn't have the same, or anywhere near as large an audience. No, what you'll take away from this is the sense of despair of a man nearing retirement looking at his country falling apart. He looks at the drug related killings, and thinks that things have gotten much worse since he was young. People have changed, the world is going to hell, and there is nothing he can do about it.

McCarthy repeats his prose style from the last novel, "The Road". It's sparse, sort of stilted. People have conversations where they say things without really saying them. And there are no quotation marks so it gets very tricky to tell sometimes who is saying what. There are whole scenes where you have to pick up clues to know who they are about, which is a bit annoying, and I found myself rereading several pages once when I realised I'd gotten it completely wrong. When it's good though, the scenes are startlingly real and intense, and the book is unputdownable at those times. Chigurh likes to talk to people before he kills them - and maybe he'll let them live, you are never quite sure.

And like the original and only good, Rambo story "First Blood" (even if you don't like Sylvester Stallone, you owe it to yourself to go back the the source novel by David Morrell), this is a book about the alienation of America's young men returning home after a war. Vietnam is the obvious one here, but WW1 and WW2 are also represented. I spent a lot of time guessing the time period in which the book is set, from the ages of the characters, and the wars they were in, and I came up with early 1980s - McCarthy really makes you work for it.

It's a good book, but the pacing needs workm and I expect it will make a great film. It feels like it was written especially for the screen, and in fact, especially for the Coen brothers. I look forward to watching it, but I think I'll need a stiff drink afterwards.

Posted by se71 at February 15, 2008 09:40 AM


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