While hunting deer in the Texan desert Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam war veteran, stumbles upon a drug deal gone south, with bullet ridden corpses and abandoned vehicles and a satchel containing two million dollars. In deciding to take the money he knows he has sealed an uncertain fate and changed his life forever. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase as the county police department and drug dealers desperate for their money race to get to Moss first, while Moss himself desperately tries to stay one step ahead of an unfathomable and malevolent hitman who kills mercilessly to get what he needs.
I mentioned a cat-and-mouse chase, somewhat of a cliched description, but the plot of No Country For Old Men has been done hundreds of times before. Any originality to be found comes instead from the portrayal and viewpoint of the two central characters, and Llewyln Moss is not one of them. This book is about Ed Tom Bell, an ageing county sheriff who struggles to adapt and comprehend to the new brand of violence encroaching on the old West, and Anton Chigurh, a cold blooded and murderous entity whose nihilistic views on fate and choice are terrifyingly final and not up for dispute. The book contains several internal monologues from the point of view of Ed Tom, as he recalls law stories of days past and how it compares to what he sees and hears today. His clear romanticism of the past (Ed Tom recalls an older generation sheriff who never felt the need to even carry a weapon while on duty) and a fear of what he will have to do, and become, to continue to uphold the law in this turbulent and unforgiving climate, becomes all the more powerful when reading about the actions and mindset of Chigurh.
Chigurh is an incredible villain, up there with Judge Holden as an almost demonic entity completely incomprehensible to the poor men and women that find themselves in their path. Chigurh is a hitman, or a bounty hunter, and in No Country For Old Men his role is to reclaim the satchel stolen by Llewyln Moss. Little is known of his origins, his background, his nationality. What makes him terrifying is the way he views himself as a deliverer of fate. Chigurh kills with little remorse but will often deliberate before doing so. After inconsequential small talk with the owner of a gas station, he implores the owner to call on a coin toss, presumably for his life.
You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there 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?
I actually saw the film adaptation (superbly directed by the Coen Brothers) before I read McCarthy’s novel. While extremely faithful to the source material, Ed Tom, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is very much a backing character. The film focuses far more on Chigurh and his relentless pursuit of Moss, which works fantastically well. The film is tense but moments of action are generally few and far between. Yet it remains gripping due to haunting, menacing and inherently violent performance by Javier Bardem as Chigurh.
Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again. I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they’ll know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that.
No Country For Old Men is a compelling, disturbing thriller, and yet some distance from the peak of McCarthy’s works. I see it as the perfect book to introduce yourself to McCarthy – hidden from the bleak nihilism of The Road, the rambling auto-bio-tragedy of Suttree and the brutal savagery of Blood Meridian.