Review: No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marvelous. I enjoy it more after every read and do not get tired of it. I’m using Mccarthy now as a model to improve my own writing. And I just realized I’m overdue for a proper review of this book since I’ve read it three times in as many months. First, as a refresher, here’s the plot summary which I do for any new reader perusing the reviews.

Blurb: Llewelyn Moss, hunting antelope near the Rio Grande, instead finds men shot dead, a load of heroin, and more than $2 million in cash. Packing the money out, he knows, will change everything. But only after two more men are murdered does a victim’s burning car lead Sheriff Bell to the carnage out in the desert, and he soon realizes how desperately Moss and his young wife need protection. One party in the failed transaction hires an ex-Special Forces officer to defend his interests against a mesmerizing freelancer, while on either side are men accustomed to spectacular violence and mayhem. The pursuit stretches up and down and across the border, each participant seemingly determined to answer what one asks another: how does a man decide in what order to abandon his life? A harrowing story of a war that society is waging on itself, and an enduring meditation on the ties of love and blood and duty that inform lives and shape destinies, No Country for Old Men is a novel of extraordinary resonance and power.

Why do I love this book? My introduction to Cormac McCarthy was The Road in 2012. I saw the film and liked it and heard the novel won a Pulitzer and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Well, my curiosity was sated but reading only caused confusion. How was it that this bizarre novel full of grammatical and punctuation errors was so famous? WHY were people raving about it? WHY did it win a Pulitzer? With such lack of concern for the English language.

It’s as if McCarthy grew tired of the language and wanted to ignore all the restrictions to storytelling so he dropped all punctuation and grammar and used simpler language to increase the reader’s immersion.

It worked but it’s still strange. Why would a publisher take on a book like that? Aren’t we all required to follow English writing standards? Apparently that’s just a suggestion, not a rule. Writers of fiction have been bucking the rules for decades with fragments and McCarthy takes that a few steps further. (I recall the first time I wrote a fragmented sentence, emulating a famous author, and that made me feel like a criminal).

No Country is similar with very little punctuation or followed rules of grammar. He writes what he thinks and there’s no stopping the narrative for things like apostrophes or quotation marks. That works in a simple story. Let’s be clear on that much: This book is a simple story with simple dialogue and only two characters at a time conversing. So, he gets away with it due to simple scenes. This would not work in a multi-layered novel or any scene with three or more. McCarthy might attempt it but the narrative only works because two people are present in any given situation.

I find the conversations enjoyable. These characters are without malice and I find that very refreshing. After reading convoluted crap from others (I won’t name names out of respect but I’m talking about sci-fi here, mostly). A small-town sheriff and his deputes in a situation they can’t quite comprehend and doing their best to cope with it. It’s very enjoyable. The narrative moves along without tricking the reader or messing with the plot to present a surprise ending. The writer doesn’t lie to his readers. So much of that in popular works today. Outright lies that the author would then blame you for misunderstanding in the end. No, no, no, I don’t buy that, and such stories (I WILL name one here for illustration purposes: The Maze Runner is a good example) will disappoint if you stop to think about how you were manipulated as the reader. Not with creative or crafty writing but with deception for the sake of deception. (Oh, you didn’t see that coming, dear reader? Shame on you!).

None of that from McCarthy. I could describe him as writing for his grandkids. Get it? He loves his readers. He loves you while you are reading his book. He won’t lie to you. He’s a straight shooter and his word is his bond. No oaths required. That is what I find refreshing and enjoyable. Contrast with, say, Patrick Rothfuss. I can use him as an example since I recently read The Name of the Wind and it made me really angry because he lied to his readers…in the intro, in the premise, everything about the story was a bait-and-switch. Argue with me if you want but that’s how it is. And that’s how McCarthy calls it–as he sees it.

Now, one drawback worth noting. His characters are fairly simple in their motives and behaviors. They are all the same character with different motivations driving them to behave differently. That is due to the culture presented: Every person in the story is from the same general area (west Texas). Including Anton Chigurh, the insane assassin. Despite having an accent (in writing here–I’m not speaking of the film), he wears crocodile boots and fits in just fine around Texans and Mexicans. His name alone indicates he’s from elsewhere. So, all of the characters are identifiable and fairly local so the plot is not overly complex or layered. You won’t run into Irish gun runners or anything like that. The uniformity of the characters does make the dialog easy to adapt to and pleasant to read. Your mind doesn’t have to shift gears.

I think there’s much to be said about simplicity of writing. McCarthy is a master storyteller and I’m listening.

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