Friday, November 30, 2007

No Country for Old Men -- Cormac McCarthy

Okay, I started to read this book a couple of years ago and stopped after the first sentence: I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. I know stuff like that shouldn't bother me, but it does. What stuff? Well, Texas doesn't have a gas chamber (or gaschamber) and never has. Here in the Lone Star State, we send 'em into the Great Beyond via lethal injection, and before that it was Old Sparky that did the job. So that sentence stopped me cold.

Oh, yeah. The "gaschamber" bothered me, too. It's part of McCarthy's celebrated style, in which men have a "shirtpocket" or drive a "Ramcharger." But they use a "cut-off" shotgun in a "shoot-out." Or they might fix a shotgun so that it has a "pistol grip." So I'm wondering: Why not a "pistolgrip" or a "shootout?"

McCarthy doesn't like quotation marks or apostrophes, either, or he must not because he doesn't use them. He'll use a comma now and then, but you can tell it hurts him to do it. Why? Is it that he wants to write like Willam Faulkner, that he's too lazy to type them, or that he just wants to irritate me?

Anyway, I told myself that I was going to read the book, and I did. The story is set in 1980, and it's about a guy who finds a lot of money after a drug deal goes bad and everyone dies. He takes the money. A guy named Anton Chigurh comes after him. Chigurh is relentless, and he kills anybody he feels like killing. Now and then he'll flip a coin and let a potential victim call "heads" or "tails," but that's as close to mercy as he comes. So there's a lot of killing and a lot of explosions, perfect for a movie (I haven't seen the movie).

Oddly enough, the major confrontation that you think the story is building toward takes place offstage. (Or should that be "off stage"? I'm getting confused.) A deputy describes what happened in a couple of paragraphs. Either McCarthy never heard about "show, don't tell," or he has contempt for something so elementary.

There's a county sheriff who has some first person narration now and then. He is, I suppose, the book's moral center. He figures that the world is going to hell in a hand basket (or handbasket), and he's sorry for the change that's coming over his part of it.

The truth is, I think there are a lot of crime writers who have told similar stories and done it just as well if not better. But what do I know?


  1. I read somewhere that McCarthy claims to have written that mistaken first sentence "on purpose". Who knows? I will say that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is not his best book, but likely will be his most popular.


  2. I wonder if they used that sentence in the movie. The reference occurs again in the book, too.

    No doubt the movie will sell a few zillion more copies of the book.

  3. Gerard9:49 PM

    That is the only McCarthy book I have read. After reading your review it's good to know I'm not alone.

  4. I loved the book. I think it's more the telling than the story at times... if that makes sense.

  5. Anonymous12:08 AM

    See the movie. Don't read the book. What an ad-line that could be.

    I liked the movie a lot.


  6. Fascinating review, Bill. I've only seen the Coen Brothers movie, which features virtuoso filmmaking from start to finish and tremendous acting. But something kept me from loving it, and I think it was the story. A bit too allegorical for me. I'm not 100% sure, but I believe the gas chamber (sorry, gaschamber) line is in the movie.

  7. Bill, I didn't read the book but I absolutely hated the movie--and I usually love Coen Brothers movies--I even liked The Lady Killers (yeah, I know, I was the only one). While this movie is going to be ultra hyped and critics are going to be stumbling over themselves in their praise, more and more I'm seeing people coming forward with the same sentiment I had about this movie. The Boston Globe film critic fell over himself praising this movie, but the TV critic for the Globe recently wrote an editorial on how life is too short to waste 2 hours on this movie. You go to a movie building up to a confrontation, you expect it, goddamn it!--not a half hour of sermonizing by Tommy Lee Jones of how he doesn't understand the evil in the world today. Plus Chigarh is too over the top to be anything but a cartoon character. Now if the Coen Brothers had shown a sense of humor and gotten John Turturro for Woody Harrelson's role, at least I could've gotten a chuckle out of it. Did I say yet that I hated this movie???

  8. Well, there goes one of my theories up in smoke. I thought for sure the Coen Bros. would put that confrontation in the movie.

    By the way, I liked The Ladykillers, too. Maybe not as much as the original, but it was still funny now and then.

  9. In Lady Killers, did you catch how the expression on the portrait keeps changing?

    Coen Brothers did one of the ahorts in Paris, je t'aime. Their's had Steve Buscemi in a PAris Metro station reading a guidebook and comign to the warning about "not making eye contact" too late. It was pretty good. The movie had 18 shorts from different directors, more hits and than misses, and is worth seeing. The highlight was the one by the guy who did "Run, Lola, Run".

    Btw. I caught Beowulf the otherday, and I'll give it a solid recommendation even though it means a lot of high school kids are going to be flunking their essays when they try skipping the poem for the movie.

  10. Just got another recommendation for the Paris film yesterday. I'll have to try to see that one.

  11. Anonymous4:51 PM

    I've read 2 books by McCarthy-- Blood Meridian and No Country. I thought both sucked. I'm not a fan of the Coen's either. Blood Simple's the only one I've cared for.

  12. Paris J'taime has enough good segments to be worth watching and this was one of the best.
    There is a large group of men that love McCarthy, esp. Blood Meridian. His writing is too self-conscious for me although I thought the movie was pretty good. I prefer Larry McMurtry and I only mention him as a counter to McCarthy because last night we had a long discussion comparing them. I guess someone asked McMurtry to comment on the movie/book.

  13. I think of McCarthy as being of the "Look, Ma! I'm writing!" school.

  14. Haven't read anything by McCarthy, but I've been thinking that Chuck Palahniuk also belongs to the same school.

  15. JackBludis12:44 PM

    Bill Crider said...
    I think of McCarthy as being of the "Look, Ma! I'm writing!" school.

    Wow, that's harsh. Especially since the tension is there throughout the film, and I do believe that McCarthy knows what he's doing--although he alleges that he doesn't.

    Jack Bludis

  16. I think he knows what he's doing, too, and the writing strikes me as too self-conscious.