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Book Review

Psycho dramas

Adam Mars-Jones

No Country for Old Men alternates the reflections of Sheriff Bell, known to everyone as Ed Tom, with the narrative of a highly unusual case. Unsolved murders are a rarity on Bell's patch of the American south west and now he has a handful. Drug-dealers have been killing each other and a satchel of money has gone missing, picked up by a passer-by who just couldn't resist it.

This could be a gangster film played out in the locations of a western. The genre elements would be strong even without the character of Chigurh, a psychopathic killer on the trail of the passer-by, who seems to owe something to a number of iconic film roles. He's a cold maniac with a philosophical mind, like Hannibal Lecter ('It is always one's stance on uncertain ground that invites the attentions of one's enemies'), and a hit-man who sees himself as an agent of divine judgment, like Samuel L Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction, lecturing people before he shoots them. He's also incapable of tiring and a dab hand at self-repair, like the Terminator itself. Climbing 17 flights of steps without getting out of breath is quite a feat for someone with a wounded leg not yet healed.

No Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy

Llewelyn Moss, the man who picked up the satchel, the generically required good man who did one thing wrong, is a Vietnam veteran of 36 (which must place the action in the mid-1980s), untraumatised by combat, a welder happily married. This last detail takes some time to emerge, since Moss's wife is referred to only as 'she', while his gun, strapped over his shoulder with a harness-leather sling, gets a full portrait: 'A heavybarreled .270 on a '98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut.' One of the drawbacks of a self-consciously economical style is that any tiny splurge of detail becomes so conspicuous.

What is displayed on these pages often seems less like economy than a sort of demented thrift. Punctuation marks are begrudged when clarity allows (so it's 'there's' but 'aint'), as if they were made by hand from some rationed metal. Not every reader will supply the phantom comma in a sentence like this, so as to grasp it first time around: 'If it looked like a thing he'd practised many times it was.'

Quotation marks never appear, so the reader must work to decide when speech begins and ends. Sometimes, there isn't enough information provided to cue the intended meaning: when Moss says: 'You're free white and 21 so I reckon you can do anything you want', she replies: 'I aint 21.' This seems likely to mean that she's in her thirties. Later, it turns out she's 19. Her name takes many pages to surface. We learn that Moss's cowboy boots are Larry Mahan long before we learn his wife is Carla Jean.

In the world of manly men, action outranks speech and thought comes in a poor third. Perhaps that's why Moss, even in circumstances where speaking aloud would be dangerous, is protected from charges of introspection: 'There is no description of fool, he said, that you fail to satisfy.' Men negotiate their identities in terms of technical knowledge ('I'm a welder./ Acetylene? Mig? Tig?/ Any of it. If it can be welded I can weld it./ Cast iron?/ Yes./ I dont mean braze./ I didnt say braze').

Wisdom takes the form of knowhow and there is craftsmanship to be admired, even in the sawing off of a shotgun: 'He squared up the cut with a file and smoothed it and wiped out the muzzle of the barrel with a damp facecloth and set it aside. Then he sawed off the stock in a line that left it with a pistol grip and sat on the bed and dressed the grip smooth with a file.'

Much of the horror of the Chigurh character comes from the sense that he is not only a sort of intellectual but an aesthete. He studies the faces of his victims as they die: 'The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see.' Again: 'Chigurh shot him through the forehead and then stood watching. Watching the capillaries break up in his eyes. The light receding. Watching his own image degrade in that squandered world.'

Aestheticism is frightening because it offers no guide to conduct; people can find anything beautiful. But it is Cormac McCarthy's word choices which make these sentences so grotesquely fine.

Chigurh's antipode is Sheriff Bell, who makes family relationships where there aren't any. He and his wife, Loretta, lose money on the jail because they plain have to feed those boys right, whatever they've done. He disapproves of a colleague referring to murdered drug-runners as 'sumbitches'. The worlds of Chigurh and Bell never really overlap. The set-up of the novel seems to be that Moss is designated to act out the conflict of good and evil, with Bell as a down-home Greek chorus, but it doesn't work out that way. Bell takes centre stage more and more, with reflections that are often woefully folksy: 'My daddy always told me to just do the best you know how and tell the truth. He said there was nothin to set a man's mind at ease like waking up in the morning and not having to decide who you were.'



This article was first published in the Guadian.

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