Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Literature: Audio Book Review - No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Where are the great American writers? No, I don’t mean the shit, entertaining as it is, written by James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Dean R. Koontz, and a biblical legion of others, not even Stephen King, who is pornographically underrated as a descent writer of fiction. No, I want to know where are the Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways, the Faulkners, the O’Connors; hell, even the Percys and Weltys.

Yale blow-hard Harold Bloom shines a bit of his dim light on a select group of American writers that includes Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth (oddly ignoring John Updike, who is certainly deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature). Bloom does include in his rarified group Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933), Irish-American, Roman Catholic, Rhode Island cum Tennessee cum Texas cum Arizona native, who despite coming late to the game has produced and impressive body of work.

As a novelist, McCarthy has accumulated all of the accolades that accompany fame in at least academic circles: a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969, a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981, a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for All the Pretty Horses in 1992, and finally a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for The Road. But you know, for the majority of the American reading public, pedestrian in their taste at best, it took Cormac McCarthy making his first ever television interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show on June 5, 2007 to give him the traction for mainstream popularity.

The Road is a very excellent book. I would direct the reader to the fine review by Gordon Hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch in this electronic magazine. But it is McCarthy’s previous book, No Country for Old Men (2005) ISBN 0-375-40677-8, that was chosen to be made into a movie by director/producers Joel and Ethan Cohen (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) a pair well known for crashing together genre like cymbals in an orchestra and regularly creating masterpieces. And if there were ever a story written screaming to be made into a movie by the Cohen Brothers, it’s No Country for Old Men.

The present review addresses the unabridged compact disc audio presentation of the work, narrated by Tom Stechschulte, who also narrates McCarthy’s subsequent The Road. Audio books offer that additional layer of artistic expression that involves the sheer act of story-telling as an art of improvisation. Stechschulte captures perfectly the Texas border twang: half American, half Mexican, half Black, and half German, hammered on a linguistic blacksmith’s iron and quenched in the water of the Rio Grande. The voices Stechschulte effects are full of grit and life fatigue of almost having seen it all. Stechschulte’s voice proves malleable moving from male to female, ignorant to educated effortlessly.

No Country for Old Men panoramically presents an intensely disturbing and sharply refined story that mixes and confuses the divine with what is most base in the human spirit. While the plot is not demanding in the whole, McCarthy presents his characters and scenes in a Faulknarian piecemeal fashion, challenging the reader to recognize, then internalize the important plot elements while discarding the chattel of which there is very little given McCarthy’s taunt writing style, similar to that of Hemingway while being less astringent.

The story opens simply enough, disguising McCarthy’s complexly colliding themes. Llewelyn Moss, a 36-year old Vietnam veteran, is hunting antelope out on a barren desert mesa set somewhere along the Mexican-American border. It is revealed later in the story that Moss served three tours between 1964 and 1968, helping to place the period of the story in the early 1980s and not in own current time as many critics have surmised. Moss is a careful and patient man observing the landscape meticulously. After sighting several antelope but proving not able to bag one, he notes through binoculars an extraordinary scene involving pickup trucks and several apparently dead bodies. Moss observes this scene for a long time.

Finally convinced of the scene’s stasis, Moss walks to inspect what appears to have been a drug deal gone horribly awry. A pickup truck bed of heroin remains untouched at the site. A Mexican driver in a second vehicle is not so lucky having been shot, remaining barely alive. He asks Moss for water which Moss does not have. Moss procures a machine pistol from the wounded Mexican and continues to survey the scene. Moss concludes that everyone involved in this transaction did not survive it, and that one of the parties is missing. Moss follows a telling blood trail for about a mile finding a man, bled to death, this a file case filled with $100 bills, 24,000 of them in neat bank stacks of $20,000 each. Moss take s the money and returns late to his trailer that he shares with his young wife, Carla Jean. After securing the money and the machine pistol, Moss fills a gallon jug with water and begins to leave the trailer. When asked by his wife what he is doing, Moss casually responds, “I’m fixin’ to do somethin’ dumber than hell, but I’m goin’ anyways.”

And with that declaration, Llewelyn Moss returns to the scene of the crime with water for the dying Mexican only to find him shot to death and himself in the rifle scope of someone after him. Moss fancies himself the hunter, hunting for his hunters. Moss readily knows that his quest is a mistake can't quell the compulsion to challenge himself. Moss pridefully believes that he can hunt the hunter as in doing so sets his own (and many other’s) destruction into motion.

Aside from Moss, the movie presents the reader with an additional pair of antithetical main characters. The first is a sociopathic assassin named Anton Chiguhr (when pronounced almost sounds like “sugar,” a most corrosive irony in the story). Chigurh executes his profession with a clean efficiency using a pistol and shotgun, each fitted with suppressors making their discharges little more than puffs. Chigurh also uses a penetrating captive bolt pistol usually employed in euthanizing livestock prior to slaughter. Not only does this implement aid Chigurh in murder, he also finds it handy in blowing out deadbolt locks.

The second main character is the local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a former World War II Veteran who is brighter than the majority of his peers and attempts to find and protect Moss. Bell is all old school. Each section of the book opens with a soliloquy by Bell, mostly addressing how things have changed in crime and law enforcement in the 30 years he has worked as a law man. Bell waxes Texan on many other related subjects that oddly interweave the story’s bleak narrative. Bell is pure deadpan, but not in any ironic, comical way. Bell is tired. He is worn down and profoundly emotionally confined by all he has experienced and what he is experiencing with this bad drug deal.

Once Moss realizes the pickle in which he finds himself, he dispatches Carla Jean to stay at her mother in El Paso until the matter of the 2.4 million dollars is reconciled. Chigurh is hired by an un-named businessman to recover the drug money and begins by hunting Moss when finding his truck at the scene of the drug deal. Chigurh makes it a point to murder all he meets, ostensibly never leaving a witness. He does, however, spare a gas station owner who correctly calls the flip of a coin. A technique employed by Chigurh as a metaphor for fate. Moss manages to elude Chigurh in spite of an electronic transmitter located in the file case of money, which is eventually found by Moss and discarded in a hotel room.

Bell finds himself continually one step behind Moss and Chigurh. This affords the sheriff the time to consider the crime and begin his own search for Moss. Meanwhile the businessman who first hired Chigurh hires Carson Wells a black ops ex-Colonel who's had experience with Chigurh previously, to recover the money. Wells quickly and easily follows Moss to a Mexican Hospital where Moss is recovering from a previous experience with Chigurh, offering to protect Moss from Chigurh in exchange for the money. Wells reasons that Chigurh will kill Moss whether Moss hands over the money or not. Moss declines and Wells returns to his hotel where he is promptly murdered by Chigurh, who seems a step ahead of everyone all of the time. The phone rings in Wells' hotel room after his murder and is answered by Chigurh who tells Moss that if he brings him the money, he will spare Moss's wife, but will kill him no matter what.

The story leads to its logical end with the exception that once Chigurh has completed his job, he is involved in a freak (coin-flip fate) car accident that results in Chigurh breaking his arm in a compound fracture. Chigurh escapes the scene leaving an empty ambulance arriving and perplexed set of onlookers.

Like in his Pulitzer-prize winning The RoadMcCarthy's language is as clean and dry as cattle bones in the Texas desert. This colloquial dialog propels large sections of the story, betraying McCarthy’s sensitive ear for regional speech and dialect so effective it would be easy for one to consider him the best living American writer at capturing the linguistic essence of a geographical region. If a literate public seeks a truly great American writer, they need look no further than Cormac McCarthy.

This review was first published in Blogcritics.org

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007