I brought Cormac McCarthy's new book, No Country for Old Men, with me over Thanksgiving. In fact, I read the entire thing through on Thanksgiving Day, it was that absorbing. Not only could I not put it down, I could barely stand to take my eyes from the page. No Country grabs you by the throat, shakes you like a rag doll for three hundred pages and leaves you exhausted. I loved it.
McCarthy is not light reading. He's a spare writer who loves conjunctions, especially 'and'. He does not shy from brutality and in this book he seems almost to revel in starkly gruesome violence.
Anton Chigurh (pronounced so that it can be confused with sugar) is a killer. We don't know much else about him and we don't need to. The opening, vicious murder of a Sheriff's deputy by which Chigurh makes his escape, gives us almost all we need know of this guy.
Llewelyn Moss is a hunter who stumbles upon the bloody aftermath of a dope deal gone bad. He's a good tracker and it is these skills that will get him mixed up with Chigurh.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is tracking both of these men throughout the book, a step behind them to the end.
It is Bell who gives the book its voice, he is one of the old men of the title. Moss and Chigurh are much younger. The book is a study in the way the world has changed, though only the older characters can describe this. In doing so, Bell even gives us the cliche about the old problems of kids chewing gum in schools versus the new problems of rape and murder. In the hands of a lesser writer this kind of thing would kill the book, but McCarthy employs cliche here because this is how someone like Ed Tom Bell talks, and thinks.
Which brings me to the best reason to read McCarthy: language. The man is a master of painting in English (though it's helpful in reading many of his books to be literate in Spanish as well, which I'm not).
As with other great writers, what he doesn't say is as important as what he does. McCarthy leaves a lot to the imagination, but describes some things (boots, the inside of a truck) with precision. Watch his use of the words "serum" and "matter" in allowing the reader to imagine present or recent violent scenes. Or a phrase like "God's own distance" to instantly render the country where a character is, unfortunately, not. There isn't a single wasted sentence in the book. Think that's not an accomplishment? Even Gilead had one or two.
Contrast McCarthy with a writer like McMurtry or, better yet, a filmmaker like Clint Eastwood. Eastwood likes to illustrate redemption through violence. McCarthy's violence--in this book and others such as his Border Trilogy--is often not redemptive, sometimes it is capricious. He may be suggesting that the world is largely random, and in fact a few of his characters have said as much. This insistent randomness confronts characters who seem to crave order with catastrophe. McCarthy almost never lets them off the hook. The characters we like best in his books often don't live to the end. Sometimes they meet their doom quite suddenly, and even "off screen." We only learn about it later through the eyes or ears of another character.
It is this fierce resistance to contrivance that I especially appreciate in McCarthy's work.