Wednesday, 3 July 2013

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

There are two things that nobody can deny about Cormac McCarthy.

1) His novels are not known for their breakneck pace.

2) He is capable of creating the most incredible sense of place.

NCFOM conforms to both of these universally acknowledged facts. The sense of place is so strong you're practically pouring sand out of your own shoes. It's a very sensory novel- the metallic blood, the dry, acrid desert heat, the smell of a dingy motel rooms and the constant sense of pursuit. The world belonging to McCarthy's characters has slowed down and it's only then that they can notice these details. He's the Steinbeck of the 21st century, no doubt about that.

The pace of the novel is intentionally slow- characters take time to think things through, to make the decisions that will end their lives and seem to be killing time until their own inevitable deaths- eating, pacing, driving. All along the reader and the character know what's coming. The novel's super-antagonist Chigurh is the master of glacially paced menace. There's no need to rush when you know what the inevitable conclusion of every job is going to be. He doesn't talk much, he has no loyalties. His eyes are described as Lapis blue, but apart from that he is unremarkable in appearance. However, people instantly acknowledge that he is not somebody that they want to provoke.

The plot is fairly simple- an underemployed Vietnam Veteran stumbles across a drug transaction gone wrong during an evening hunting trip in the desert. $2.5 million and a truckload of Heroine for the taking. Bodies. Bullet holes. His decision sets in motion (or continues an already existing movement, when you think about it) a chain of events that he simply cannot escape. Meanwhile another Vietnam Veteran, Sherriff Lee, is looking for one of the most evidently psychopathic serial killers, possibly a contract killer, that his relatively quiet county has ever known. The reader feels like they are plonked into the middle of a story that has been unravelling for an undisclosed amount of time, and then yanked out of it before its conclusion. But that's life I guess.

It's essentially a very traditional Western, set on the modern day California/Texas/Mexico border. The writing is compelling and unsentimental. His style is uncomfortably sparse in places but the writing feels complex- it's taken me three novels to really learn to appreciate McCarthy and his hypnotic style of prose. Incredible.

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