Book review: ‘No country for old men’ by Cormac McCarthy

A few months ago, when the world was a different one, I read and reviewed ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy – a read that adequately ushered me into three weeks of total anxiety and panic as I watched our now well-acquainted pandemic start to take hold in the UK. I never saw it getting to the post-apocalyptic levels of Cormac McCarthy’s debut novel, of course, but there was human behavior we’ve all seen (spitting in the faces of bloody brilliant NHS workers risking their lives for the general public, anyone?) which gave me echoed flashbacks to some of the more immoral and nasty characters in his book. 

I’m sad I couldn’t read it again for the first time. And I’m really disappointed that my second run-in with Cormac’s work wasn’t anywhere near the explosive experience I’d hoped for.

Perhaps it’s because it’s a Western (alright PROBABLY because it’s a Western). Perhaps it’s because the characters seemed almost indistinguishable from each other. Perhaps it’s the structure. Perhaps it’s because I expected too much from another Cormac book. But the more I read, the more I prayed that I would trip over and fall on my proverbial spurs. 

I’m not sure what I missed. This book contains more people getting shot than you can shake a stick full of black-tar heroin at, and all the reviews I’ve read about this ‘classic thriller’ are singing its praises – but once I’d read the first 50-odd pages, I got bored. And then I got more bored.

And then I had to drink an energy drink to get through the last bit.

‘No country for old men’ is, however, a great (and previously unknown to me) example of what Tom Spanbauer refers to as ‘burnt tongue’ i.e. to ensure that your characters speak from their time and their place, that they speak like real humans speak, rather than a nicely polished piece of dialogue. Cormac certainly makes language his bitch in this novel, with almost perfect Texan lilts doing without grammar in some cases of dialogue, “I dont know. Wouldnt of thought it.”

Unfortunately – and this is the case in a lot of geographically-dependent burnt dialogue – because all the characters had the same regional talk, it made it quite difficult to distinguish between them all. As a reader, you’re already trying to get used to a new ‘language’ (for lack of a better term), and suddenly their otherness is copy and pasted into everyone’s dialogue.

For me, the characters blurred into the blocks of ‘law enforcement’, ‘bad guys’ and ‘wives’ (yes, it was set only in the 80’s but all the women pretty much play the same role, as southern-talking women trying to hold their men back from certain death as they get involved in shady dealings. There was a standout young female character, a drifter, but her end comes pretty swiftly and barely dents the story).

One interesting thing I noticed was the structure of the novel. For as long as I had recorded (up until chapter 5 when I got bored) it seemed to follow the same mid-chapter act structure. In short, without fail within a chapter, we would see the following highs and lows: 

Scene #1: Bell (initially just an unnamed sheriff) will talk about being his family, his history as a law enforcer, and about the presence of evil
Scene #2: Something new will be discovered (either the drug deal gone wrong, shot up car, Moss’s wife etc.)
Scene #3: Someone shoots at a character (most likely Chigurgh, the baddie), or is shot themselves
Scene #4: Someone moves physically from one place to another, in turn moving along the storyline.

There’s obviously a political undertone to this novel, set in 1980 which was a somewhat violent period of American history – but I find it interesting that it is not the initial crime, but the humanitarian gesture that follows, which unravels the whole storyline and puts Moss in danger. Without returning to give the dying man some water, he could have escaped entirely undetected with the money he steals. Potentially a pretty neat commentary on humanity and the anxiety people felt at the unpredictable nature of crime and evil at that point in history.

Still, if there were undertones or themes running below that level, they didn’t find me and I didn’t much look for them either. Glad to move on from this slow burner to something a little more exciting.

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