19 July 2005

No Country for Old Dudes

Cormac McCarthy’s pessimistic nihilism

Everyone in Cormac McCarthyland can shoot a gun, but the doomed men have the truest aim. Lester Ballard, the luckless savage of Child of God (1973), has his finest hour splitting bull’s-eyes at the county fair. Jimmy Blevins, the ill-fated scamp of All the Pretty Horses (1992), entertains his friends with feats of sharpshooting until he’s taken into a stand of trees and shot himself. In a world of cactuses and men, all of whom are desperate to be left alone, the marksman is distinguished by his solitary gift. It is the hubris of this talent, the tacit claim to self-sufficiency, that mandates his demise. Accordingly, those who live to see the novels finish are those who are yoked to others by love: in The Crossing (1994), Billy Parham has his brother Boyd and pal John Grady; in McCarthy’s new novel, No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell has his county and his wife. But these beloveds tend themselves to die, leaving the survivors a diminished, foreclosed life that often seems to McCarthy a poorer fate than death. Old age, the subject of No Country for Old Men, is what remains once recollection has gnawed the rest away.

McCarthy is said to have worked the novel up from an older screenplay, and the three main characters debut in a series of cinematic cuts. First to appear is Anton Chigurh, a flat, metallic hit man who kills for business and for his own poorly explained pleasure. One of his murders, a grisly bit of work with handcuffs, draws the attention of a second figure, the aging Sheriff Bell. Faced with the new breed Chigurh represents, and with a drug war boiling at the Texas-Mexico border, Bell increasingly doubts his ability to keep the county safe. It is at the border itself that we meet our protagonist, a reticent ex-Army sniper named Llewellyn Moss. “Best rifleshot I ever saw,” Moss’s father brags. The compliment does not bode well.

Hunting antelope in the desert, Moss stumbles into a diorama of Hollywood troubles: machine-gunned Broncos, bleeding outlaws, a huge stash of heroin, stacks of unmarked bills. Though not a deep thinker, Moss can’t miss the synechdoche: “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.” Moss takes the money and runs, and the novel traces his pursuit—by the agents of the cartel, by Sheriff Bell, and by Anton Chigurh, who has taken an unexplained interest in the case. Moss’s decision to abscond is not exactly moral, but neither is it craven. (The plot is set in gear only when he returns to the scene, chiding himself all the way, with a drink of water for one of the dying bandits.) Instead, his theft seems to lodge a protest against diminished prospects: the confinements of his chintzy trailer, of his job as a welder. In an older, better age he might have been—a cowboy?

Like the rest of McCarthy’s recent work, No Country for Old Men registers a deep if somewhat stylized pessimism against the dimensions of late modern life. The title, lifted from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” is meant to register this as well, but the invocation is only half-right. Yeats and McCarthy share a disdain for the common drift of things toward a permissive, middling liberalism. But Yeats’s speaker wishes to retire to an aristocratic order, to climb his Tower and study there the “monuments of unageing intellect.” McCarthy’s dudes have no such aspiration. They don’t even have library cards. For Moss, as for Billy Parham, the only conceivable voyage is the journey over the border, and Juarez is no Byzantium.

McCarthy’s Texan pessimism plays out in the tragedy of Moss, but the sense that everything’s gone to hell in a handbasket is evoked most plainly by Sheriff Bell, whose humble first-person reflections introduce each chapter. In these lively and unscripted passages, Bell mourns the recent fortunes of his district and cites evidence of broader decay—drugs in schools, babies in dumpsters.

The elemental, hyperviolent Anton Chigurh provides the proof of Sheriff Bell’s pessimism. (The name is said to sound like “sugar,” though it looks more like chirurgia, the Latin term for “surgery.”) We meet Chigurh at the novel’s outset, slaying someone with a cattle gun.

He placed his hand on the man’s head like a faith healer. The pneumatic hiss and click of the plunger sounded like a door closing. The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see. Chigurh wiped his hand with his handkerchief. I just didnt want you to get blood on the car.

The first four sentences of this passage are a compendium of McCarthy’s old strengths: the minor heresy of the opening metaphor, the gothic brio of the violence, and, most familiar of all, the lofty diction (“uncoupling world”) set off by plainer phrasings. But what lingers in memory, unfortunately, is the final sentence—a sort of hardboiled egg. One feels McCarthy might as well have written “Hasta la vista, baby.” As readers of the recent work will know, his Spanish is excellent.


McCarthy’s Western fiction is fenced by a pair of attitudes. The first of these is a deep pessimism, whether conservative or libertarian, about the liberal state. Sheriff Bell voices the conservative strain: in his view, trouble “starts when you begin to overlook bad manners.” McCarthy’s cowboys are less concerned with etiquette. What rankles the heroes of the Border Trilogy (and, earlier, of the Appalachian novels) is the encroachment of bureaucracy. The ranch at the center of Cities of the Plain is commandeered by the Army. In Child of God, the seizure of his property for unpaid taxes seals Lester Ballard’s madness. Sheriffs, cowboys, and madmen share a sense that things used to be better, and now are getting worse.

The second attitude of the Western novels amounts to a type of nihilism. At one point or another, McCarthy’s villains tend to get fed up with the dull persistence of his heroes, and they let a bit of doctrine slip. “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery,” the Judge chides the kid in Blood Meridian. “The mystery is that there is no mystery.” This same teaching is offered to John Grady Cole in Cities of the Plain. “Your kind,” sneers the pimp, “cannot bear that the world be ordinary.” To take the world as an ordinary thing is, for McCarthy, to view it merely as the sum of its events, its cycles of generation and decay. What the young men hope for, the “mystery” they entertain, is that somewhere in the flux there is a fixed point by which they might orient their travels. But the hope is unrequited, as their wanderings suggest.

Nihilism creates a problem for the writer, since it can be gotten on the cheap. (This cheapened form is cynicism.) Faith must be possible before it becomes impossible, or else the realization that the world is ordinary will be greeted with a jaded shrug. To recover the terror of the ordinary, the clutter of our cynicism—of the mere assumption that nothing holds—must first be cleared away. “Men wish to be serious,” notes one of the sages in The Crossing, “but they do not understand how to be so.” McCarthy’s high style aims to make this seriousness possible again—to provoke in the reader the very loss of faith that the cheap nihilist habitually assumes. His scriptural cadences conjure the tradition, the outline, and the promise of faith. Then, in his sonorous descriptions of the natural world, the promise is rescinded. From The Crossing:

The small sands in that waste was all there was for the wind to move and it moved with a constant migratory seething upon itself. As if in its ultimate granulation the world sought some stay against its own eternal wheeling.

McCarthy’s cowpokes may be looking at a cloud of dust, but the narrators evoke in each such comparison, each as if, a world of ceaseless change. The Old Testament rhetoric prepares us for a revelation, but the world that it reveals shelters no mystery, and thus remains aloof to human aims.


In No Country For Old Men, the storm of metaphysics has blown over, and the high style is relaxed. The book was written in a six-month jag, and the prose arrives in bursts, like a pile of telegrams. Its scenes are brisk and well-constructed. But the efficient action and mounting body count offer little pause for reflection, and having made their contributions to the plot, most scenes fade quickly from memory. With the language becalmed and the action careering, the sustaining interest of this book must reside in its characters.

The best of these is Sheriff Bell, who presides over the novel’s long denouement. Bell is often predictable, but he is wonderfully true. “This may sound ignorant,” he confesses, “but I think for me the worst of it is knowin that probably the only reason I’m even still alive is that [the cartels] have no respect for me. And that’s very painful. Very painful.” The success of the Sheriff is notable given that McCarthy’s characters are typically incapable of introspection. (Moss, for instance, seems to think only when he speaks aloud. “Do not get your dumb ass shot out there,” he tells himself. “Do not do that.” The cowherds of the Border Trilogy are equally mute.) In this sense, the achievement of No Country is that it annexes for McCarthy the novel’s own terrain: that of subjectivity.

Less successful is Anton Chigurh, the hoary definition of a psychopath. Chigurh likes to watch his victims die—not so he can gloat, but in order to study their odd behavior. First they defy him, then they beg for mercy: highly illogical. “People don’t pay attention,” he hisses at a clerk. “And then one day there’s an accounting.” In the clerk’s case, that accounting takes the form of a coin toss. He’s asked to call it the air. When he gets it right, that’s the wheeling universe informing Chigurh that the man deserves to live. As he leaves the store, Chigurh tells the clerk to keep the coin. Scenes like these are chilly and fantastic, but not a lot more. Most of the time, the killer is left to mutter in his noirish idiom. “He’s out of the picture.” Or, worse: “I’m glad to hear that. You were beginning to disappoint me.”

Inevitably, Chigurh will be compared to Judge Holden, the demiurgic force of Blood Meridian. The comparison is unlikely to do him any good. Like the Judge, Chigurh subscribes to a fatalism unencumbered by norms. “You can say that things could have turned out differently,” he tells a woman who has called her coin flip wrong. “That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world. Do you see?” Then he shoots her. What made the Judge’s violence so compelling was the love he felt for all that he destroyed: the ancient remnants of the Anasazi; a puppy that he raises; a child. The Judge is a spirit fructified by power. Chigurh is merely cruel, and cruelty is badness half-imagined.

Perhaps the trouble here is systematic. McCarthy wishes in No Country to maintain both of the doctrines identified above, but this places him in a bind: how is it possible to be a nihilist and a pessimist at once? Nothingness can’t be getting worse. The conflict weakens Chigurh, who is meant to serve both as the argument for nihilism and the evidence for pessimism. On the one hand, he defends McCarthy’s mechanistic view of nature, the core premise of his nihilism. “For things at a common destination there is a common path,” he observes. “Not always easy to see. But there.” If McCarthy is to make this view compelling to the reader, as he did in Blood Meridian, its advocate must attract us in some way; the Judge’s evils are redeemed, in part, by their joyful creativity.

On the other hand, Chigurh’s deeds are meant to justify the Sheriff’s pessimism. And if we are to be persuaded of this view as well, then Chigurh cannot attract us as the Judge does; if there is something redeeming in the new breed of criminal, our pessimism can’t quite be complete. Accordingly, Chigurh’s vitality must be checked, his strength sapped, and the novel suffers accordingly. In the end, perhaps, there is only one way for McCarthy to say that nothingness is getting worse: Even the psychopaths aren’t what they used to be.

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