Cormac McCarthy is one of America's best writers, and this is one of his better books, honored by being produced as a film by the renowned kings of dark thrills, the Coen brothers. The film paid no better homage to McCarthy than to keep his intention intact – no happy ending, no sloppy characterizations, no loose ends.
If you have seen the movie you will like the book even better, because McCarthy has an ear for the cadence of ordinary speech, a talent shared by few (Elmore Leonard comes to mind), so that you can hear the characters talking. I once spent a few rather depressing days in Sanderson, Texas – our car broke down on the way to California and we were stuck in a West Texas burg with little activity or charm to recommend it. I can attest to the barren, colorless and seemingly endless vistas that could turn a good man crazy with the promise of a way out. Sanderson, with its surrounding bleak landscape, provides the setting for No Country for Old Men. It is there, somewhere in the rocky wilderness, that Llewelyn Moss, a cocky local with not much on his mind but his pretty wife and his prowess at hunting, happens on the remains of a Mexican drug deal gone wrong: dead bodies everywhere and a suitcase full to the brim with money – about 2 million in all. Llewelyn knows that this suitcase is his best shot at life, and his best recipe for disaster and death. What he doesn't know is that on the side of the bad guys is the baddest guy ever.
Sherriff Ed Tom Bell, an old man fixing to retire (although he doesn't know it at the start of the book), muses in short bursts about the incursion of pure evil into his jurisdiction. In the opening segment, Bell describes watching a man die in the gas chamber, a man who seems to him to have "no soul." But, he tells us ominously, "he wasn't nothing compared to what was coming down the pike."
When we first meet Anton Chigurh, he is escaping from police custody by strangling a young deputy with his handcuff-linked wrists. After he escapes, he takes the cop's car, pulls a driver, and executes him with a stun gun, the kind used to fell steers in a slaughterhouse:
"The man slid wordlessly 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. Chigurh wiped his hand with his handkerchief. I just didn't want you to get blood on the car, he said."
So now we know what Bell discovers by increments – that there is an evil in his world that could be called Satan, a force that will stop at nothing to accomplish its selfish ends.
Llewellyn Moss thinks he's smart – he's a crack shot, Viet Nam vet, tough as nails. But is he smart enough to outwit Chigurh? And if he isn't, who will save him, and who can protect his teen bride, the daring Carla Jean?
Bell will try.
A book about damned souls, and souls getting lost as greed takes over, about botched getaways and one cold, homicidal villain who never leaves a witness, No Country for Old Men is both action and philosophy. Through Bell's eyes we see a world already gone to the bad, where no one says "sir" and "ma'am" anymore and youngsters sport "green hair and nose bones." The big question will be, what is still worth saving?