Cormac McCarthy

"No Country for Old Men"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 5, 2005)

"Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont ever want to confront him. I know he's real. I have seen his work…[but] I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job…I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that."

Cormac McCarthy's first novel since he completed the Border Trilogy in 1998 is a dramatic change of pace. Gone is the focus on the wild Texas plains and the encroachment of civilization. Gone are the lyrical descriptions of wild nature and young love. Gone is the belief that love and hope have a fighting chance in life's mythic struggles. Instead, we have a much darker, more pessimistic vision set in Texas in the 1980s, a microcosm for the world at large, in which drugs and violence have so changed "civilization" that the local sheriff worries that "we're looking at something we really aint even seen before."

The dramatic opening line—"I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville"—immediately establishes the thematic battle for the soul of man. The nineteen-year-old "boy" who went to the gas chamber readily admitted to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell that "he had been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again." The forty-five-year-old sheriff finds himself at a loss as he tries to deal with this kind of growing amorality, affecting even his small Texas border town. Because of the drug trade, the old "rules" are gone, and Bell must struggle to contain an unprecedented wave of violence and solve at least ten murders, including the murder of a young deputy. As he fights against this pervasive evil, Bell provides first-person accounts, which are the linchpin of the thematic development and the bridge to the other stories.

Running parallel with Bell's investigations is the story of Llewelyn Moss, a resident of Bell's town, who, while hunting in the countryside, uncovers a bloody massacre and a truck which contains a large shipment of heroin. Exploring the scene, Moss uncovers a satchel with over two million dollars, which he takes, even though he knows he will be pursued by hitmen from the drug cartel. His attempts to stay alive, the second story line, involve Sheriff Bell, who knows Moss is not a murderer, though Moss's truck is found at the scene. Hunting Moss and his wife in an effort to retrieve the missing money is Anton Chigurh, a sociopath with a love of torture, the avenger for a drug cartel. His single-minded pursuit and willingness to inflict any kind of pain show him to be a Satan who will stop at nothing, the antithesis of the thoughtful and kindly Bell. Chigurh himself is hunted by a man named Wells, a former special forces soldier-turned-hitman, a rival enforcer in the drug trade.

By far the most exciting and suspenseful novel McCarthy has written in recent years, the story speeds along, the body count rising in shocking scenes of depravity. Fortunately, Sheriff Bell's first person musings about crime, society and the people around him break the tension periodically, allowing the reader some breathing room and the opportunity to think about the wider implications of the action. Bell is a thoughtful, plain-spoken commentator, who believes his job makes him part of the battle for the soul of man, and as he ponders his own role in this battle, he elevates the action above the superficial shoot-'em-up and into a more philosophical realm. The violence continues, the body count grows, and eventually, in a thematically important scene near the end of the book, Bell visits his eighty-year-old Uncle Ellis, a former deputy sheriff, who, like Bell, is a war veteran. As they share their experiences of World War I and Vietnam, where they were willing to give their lives for a presumably winnable cause, the contrast between those battles and this battle on the home front is put into a broader and bleaker perspective.

McCarthy's conservative view of the world, his desire to hang on to the old values, and his grim vision of the present and future reflect a vision of life that many readers will not share. The artistry the reader has seen in McCarthy's thematic development throughout the rest of the novel is sacrificed in the last forty pages, in which Bell's overt warnings and cautionary remarks about the future sound somewhat preachy. Still, the novel is breathtaking in its construction, and in Sheriff Ed Tom Bell we have one of McCarthy's best-drawn characters. Sacrificing lyricism for intense drama, McCarthy offers much to ponder about the country's direction and its future.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 480 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from No Country for Old Men at

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"Blood Meridian, or,
The Evening Redness In The West"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 15, 1999)

Blood Meridian recounts the adventures of "the Kid," a young runaway, who comes upon the company of the Glanton Gang - outlaws and scalp hunters. This book is not for the faint of heart.

Set in Texas and Mexico in the 1850s, it is based heavily on actual historical events. Nothing that happens to the Kid is easy to read about, but nevertheless I made it through; at the toughest I treated it as a compulsory read. I'll admit that it took me a couple tries to get to the end of this novel. At one point, I put the book down and a month later started it from the beginning again. It wasn't until I had finished did I realize that I had managed to get seven-eighths of the way through it that last time. Reading it all again was worth it.

Despite, or maybe because, it is so very gruesome, I highly recommend this book. I do not have the words or the mastery to tell you the strength of McCarthy's language and its effect in describing a landscape every inch as violent as the characters. Sometimes fiction shows the harshest truths.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 222 reviews

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About the Author:

Cormac McCarthyCormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933.  When he was four, his family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. McCarthy attended Catholic High School in Knoxville, then went to the University of Tennessee from 1951-52.  He joined the Air Force in 1953 and served four years, returning to the University in 1957.  While at the University he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing in 1959 and 1960.  During this time he married and had one child. He left college, and started his first book after moving his family to Chicago and working as an auto mechanic. A couple years later, they moved back to Tennessee, their marriage ended and he received a travelling fellowship.

During his travels he met and married Anne DeLisle. During these years, he received the Rockefeller Fellowship and later the Guggenheim.  In 1976, he and Anne separated.

He moved to El Paso Texas and in 1981 he received the MacArthur Fellowship which allowed him the time to do the research for Blood Meridian. In 1992 he won the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses. Cormac McCarthy still lives in El Paso, Texas. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014