“What’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss?”
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men consists of a fast paced Western story with elements of greed, evil, senility and guilt all inculcated in razor sharp dialogues. McCarthy’s unique writing style makes it a little difficult to follow the story initially, but once you get used to the absence of quotes, the judicious use of conjunctions and the absence of references to the speakers, you will find it hard to put the book down. What compels you to keep reading the book, however, is the way the depth of its characters is constantly under revelation through the dialogues and actions alone. There is never a single description of any character in the book- appearance-wise or with regard to the character itself- that helps one to visualize the characters involved. Nevertheless, the sharp dialogues and monologues completely obviate the need for the same. Take for instance Anton Chigurh’s intimidating dialogue with the proprietor of a filling station. The whole scenario doesn’t serve any purpose with regard to progression of the plot. But the ease and terror with which it reveals the guiltless, contemplating evil character of Anton Chigurh can take any seasoned reader by surprise. Or for that matter the definite and purposeful use of his weapon- the cattle gun. In fact, the terror of Chigurh, largely perceived through his sharp dialogues and actions, sometimes goes to the extent of being comical in nature, thereby deceiving the reader (but not his victim) on the intensity of the scene. The humor, in general, is sparse, but when present, it is subtly comical in nature despite the evidently perilous circumstances surrounding the character.
No Country for Old Men takes off with the seemingly facile escape of Anton Chigurh, the main antagonist, from the Sheriff’s prison. It immediately shifts focus and follows the journey of Llewlyn Moss, a welder (“If it is anything that can be welded, then I can weld it.”) , who stumbles across the remains of a drug deal gone bad in the middle of the desert. When he discovers the 2.4 million dollars in hard cash and decides to take it, he realizes that he has to run. The rest of the book follows his journey as Anton Chigurh tries to hunt Moss down to retrieve the money and to kill him for having caused “some inconvenience”. Amidst this cat and mouse game for the money, McCarthy provides some much needed balance to the storyline in the form of Sheriff Bell, the long standing Sheriff of the county who is on the lookout for the ghost of Chigurh, whose ruminations and self evaluation on a myriad of personal and general aspects form the small alternate chapters in the book.
In the end, this is not just a book about the good v/s the evil. That is because there is no ‘absolute good’ in this book. There maybe an absolute evil in the form of Chigurh- considering his terse explanation about why he has to ‘do it’. But there is definitely no absolute good. Not in Moss and definitely not in Sheriff Bell. But it is this presence of large areas of grey that makes the reader follow the story in an objective manner-not clearly knowing what you want the end of each character to be. Looking from a broader perspective, No Country for Old Men successfully explores, through Sheriff Bell’s meditations, the continuous moral decadence of the West through the decades, giving a clear idea as to where it is now headed. If I have to give 2 reasons why you should read the book, the first one would be to see the expertise of McCarthy in bringing out the depth in his characters without having to resort to a single description and the second one would be to explore and marvel at the character that is Anton Chigurh.
For those of you, who like me, have watched the movie first, there is still quite a lot left for exploring in the book. And I have to say that watching the movie definitely helped me visualize the scenes and the characters better and you will also see why Javier Bardem got the Oscar for his portrayal of Anton Chigurh.