Darkness in West Texas

No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually read books after I’ve seen the movie — one of two things will happen. The depth of the book will cheapen the movie, or the movie will make the book sound like a screenplay. I saw Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” (an underrated period piece) before I read the book, and I felt like I was reading what I had seen at the movies, so I just stopped. I read Stephen King’s “It” after I’d seen the movie, and the book’s rich description made the movie seem like a Nerf football trying to sneak in for use in an NFL game — it just didn’t stand up.

With “No Country for Old Men,” I’ve probably seen the movie 20 times — or at least parts of it. It comes on cable a lot, and I really enjoyed it in the theater. The ambiguous ending, which really irritated my stepfather, who wanted some closure to the store of Anton Chigurh, fits the moral ambiguity which seems to have taken over the “country” in question.

The movie is really the story of Anton Chigurh, but the book is the story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, whose grandfather was a sheriff before him, and who carries the ghosts of a Bronze Star that he received in World War II without really having deserved it — at least in his own opinion. He returned from the war determined to be the sort of sheriff that takes care of everyone in his county — in his words, he feels he should be the “first one to die” if violence breaks out. Because he failed his combat group, he never wants to fail again. He has committed to a life of integrity.

Into his county spills the chaos of a drug war — in a valley, Llewellyn Moss happens upon a scene of mass slaughter — a truck with brown heroin in the back, several other trucks with people in them who have been shot. Llewellyn finds one man still alive who just asks him for water. Because he has no water, Llewellyn leaves, looking for the man who escaped. He finds him some distance away, having died of his own wounds — with an oxbox next to him with over $1 million inside. Llewelyn grabs the money and runs.

That night, Llewellyn feels guilty for leaving the man behind to dehydrate, so he takes a jug of water and drives back out there, despite his wife’s protests. He realizes that what he’s doing is foolish, but his guilt drives him.

Of course, people are looking for the missing money; when he goes down to give water to the man (who has since died), he looks up to see others around his truck, and he realizes that his life has become one of unending flight. Anton Chigurh, a mysterious “freelancer” in the world of assassinations and recovery of large sums of money, uses the information on the truck to find where Llewellyn lives and then breaks in to read Llewellyn’s phone bill, to guess his destination. There are two choices — Del Rio and Odessa, and Chigurh chooses Del Rio. This choice mirrors the coin that Chigurh carries with him, to allow his potential victims to, possibly, avoid their fates. Because Chigurh chose correctly (and because the money case has a transponder in it), he is able to track down Llewellyn.

Sheriff Bell sees the violence that is headed for Llewellyn and tries to reach him, through his wife, Carla Jean. However, the ruthlessness of Chigurh and the Acosta gang, both of whom are outraged at the theft of their drugs and their money, are more than a match for Llewellyn’s determination. While the movie follows the strangely amoral advance of the assassin, the novel follows the sheriff’s growing frustration with the fact that he can no longer protect the people in his county, with the notion that right and wrong have been muddied beyond recognition for too many in the world. The notion behind the title is the idea that old men look scared and helpless in modern times, because the ethical compass with which they navigated the world has lost the source of its magnetic attraction. Sheriff Bell ascribes it to the disappearance of “Sir” and “Ma’am” from the speech of the young, but that again is just a symptom of something larger, of an individualism that no longer heeds ethics in its pursuit of what it wants.

The story unfolds with the same unyielding intensity that the Coen Brothers used to render it in their film version, although it is interspersed with more ruminations from Sheriff Bell, and a lot of the questions that go unanswered in the movie are resolved in the book. The most important one, though, which concerns the future of a society with no ethical foundation, remains open, because we do not yet know where this will take us.

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