Cormac McCarthy is like sex. Even at his most mediocre, he’s still pretty good.
The man is a writer’s writer, and that’s all I give a good goddamn about. I can tell you with some certainty that he doesn’t care what I like or don’t like about his books, and if he ever had the misfortune to run across this review, I’m sure he would just shake his head at my ineptitude with the English language. I’m sure he’d be ashamed to admit we both make our daily bread through the manipulation of keyboard characters. It’s a hell of a thing, actually, to be faced with my own mortality in that I will never write anything that’s half as good as what Cormac McCarthy would scribble on the back of a matchbook during a mescaline binge while he was suffering from microbes ingested from a glass of jungle ice water.
But No Country for Old Men is not his best book—not even close. Now, here’s what really sucks: I think it will be his best-read book. Strike that. All the Pretty Horses, for which he won the National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award back in 1992, probably had a fair number of readers due to the publicity.
But All the Pretty Horses wasn’t his best book, either. His best book was either Suttree or Blood Meridian. So, here we go: If it’s not his best book, why will it be (one of) his best-read?
First of all, compared with many of his books, it’s a simply told story. It’s easily his most accessible book, as close to a straight narrative as I can recall in any of McCarthy’s novels, and, except for The Gardener’s Son, I’ve read them all several times—and The Gardener’s Son isn’t a novel anyway; it’s a screenplay. No Country for Old Men is certainly not the very dark (although, at times, it is past dusk) literary braid to which we grew accustomed in McCarthy’s Southern Gothic days.
Not to offer too much of a plot synopsis, but No Country for Old Men is about a good man who, in a remote spot, comes across a gone-to-hell drug deal. There’s a lot of money at the scene, too much to let be. Enter a psychopathic killer and an all-too-human lawman, and you’ve got a decent story, but you don’t have the judge or the midnight melon mounter or the technical virtuosity of McCarthy’s other Western novels.
The dialogue is all McCarthy. It’s often so perfectly paced, so true sounding, that it thrills you in the same way a perfectly cut wind chime can echo in the distance of your mind. Again, even when he’s not at his best, he’s still very, very good.
There’s a theme in the novel that goes something like “Eventually, all human strength fails.” Oh, God, I can only hope that McCarthy was writing with ironic intent, because I’m a much younger man than he is, and I can’t stand the thought of one of my heroes not getting out before he dilutes his legacy. But then, as I mentioned, I don’t imagine he gives a damn what I think.
This book may serve as an introduction to the work of one of America’s greatest novelists. I’d recommend a reading of No Country for Old Men, but I’d also suggest that readers dig a little deeper into the McCarthy library.