Tuesday, March 05, 2013

the last book I read

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.

It's an early morning in 1980 in southern Texas, near the Rio Grande, and Llewellyn Moss is out and about just minding his own business taking pot-shots at antelope with a high-powered rifle. During his off-road excursions in his pick-up he comes across a disturbing tableau of vehicles and dead bodies: the aftermath of a clandestine drug deal gone violently wrong.

So drug deals normally involve the handover of money in exchange for drugs; there is a substantial quantity of heroin in the back of one of the trucks, but no sign of the cash. Moss follows a trail of blood up a hillside away from the vehicles and finds another body; this one has a briefcase on him with a little over two million dollars in it. So what would you do?

After mulling over this question for a couple of nanoseconds Moss takes the money and his truck and speeds off back to his young wife in their trailer-park home with no very clear idea of what he is going to do next. What he actually does is have an attack of conscience and head back to the killing ground with a flask of water for the one guy who wasn't quite dead. This single act of pointless kindness unleashes a world of shit, as various others are out looking for the money and the drugs and Moss barely escapes with his life, having to abandon his truck in the process. Knowing that the pursuers will soon know who he is and will be on his trail he packs his wife Carla Jean off to her mother's and hits the road.

It's not just the Mexicans who supplied the narcotics that are after him, though, but also a representative of the intended recipients of the drugs, who reasonably enough reckon that if they aren't going to get the goods then they ought to be getting their money back. This representative is Anton Chigurh, a man you don't want to get on the wrong side of, indeed a man you ideally don't want to have the slightest idea of your existence.

Moss is a brave and resourceful man, but intelligent enough to recognise that he has embarked on a road that cannot lead anywhere good. As he himself says:
If you knew there was somebody out here afoot that had two million dollars of your money, at what point would you quit lookin for em? That's right. There aint no such a point.
But what can you do, surrender to your fate? So Moss does his best to evade his pursuers anyway. Also in pursuit, for different reasons, is kindly old county sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who feels a duty of care for those dwelling under his jurisdiction.

Moss's flight becomes increasingly frantic, involving a gunfight with Chigurh at a hotel in which both are injured, a brief escape over the border into Mexico for some no-questions-asked medical treatment, and a final flight towards El Paso to meet up with Carla Jean, during the course of which the Mexicans finally catch up with him. Denied an opportunity for a personal enactment of his appointed task, Chigurh presents himself at Carla Jean's house to explain how, under his idiosyncratic moral code, payment of the debt now falls to her.

As well-known as McCarthy's work is, and as widely-reviewed as this was when it was published in 2005, most people will know it from the Coen brothers' 2007 film adaptation., which won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. I saw the film when it came out and I can tell you that (a few understandable elisions aside) it's a very faithful adaptation of the book. One of the reasons this is possible is that the book, like all McCarthy's books, and particularly the later ones, is stripped down to the bare minimum of narrative and dialogue necessary to get its points across. This being the Coen brothers there is perhaps just an edge of very black humour in the film, and in Javier Bardem's portrayal of Chigurh, ludicrous haircut and all, in particular, that wasn't in the book, McCarthy not being big on humour in general.

Like The Road (also filmed) this is heavy on late-period McCarthy idiosyncrasies - short sentences, precious few adjectives and adverbs and frivolity of that sort, a general aversion to commas and quotation marks and apostrophes in words like "don't" and "can't" that some people will probably find too infuriating an affectation to get past, and precious little in the way of internal reflection by any of the characters (with the exception of Bell's musings at the end). It's less ambitious than either The Road or Blood Meridian, and to be honest both of those are probably better; all of Bell and Chigurh's philosophising and a bit of subverting of genre expectations at the end can't hide the fact that this is a fairly bog-standard pursuit thriller, brutally effective though it is. You should still read it, though, and see the film too.

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