Book Review: No Country for Old Men

“Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.” – Anton Chigurh

The Coen Brothers are one of my favorite directors and I will fight the person  who says that their movies are crap and then, while the aforementioned is on the ground, I will explain to him, with reason, the artistic merits of their films. No Country for Old Men is one of my favorites and I have seen how the Coens investigated the brutality that men are capable of inflicting upon one another. At the end credits of the film, when I saw that the movie is based from a book by Cormac McCarthy, I immediately thought of buying the book afterwards and reading it.

First off, the book’s title came from the poem, Sailing to Byzantium, by William Butler Yeats. The poem is about the quest of man for immortality and paradise. Here is the stanza where the title of the book was mentioned:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

What I can say now, with conviction, after reading the novel is that the book is a bit better than the film. It affected me in ways that only great books can and I mused about the tragedy of the human condition for weeks on end after reading the novel. It is a very sad thought to know that humanity has almost an insatiable capability for violence and that we also have an unlimited capacity to endure evil. This has been going on ever since men discovered that they can make each other bleed . This has been happening all throughout our history and No Country for Old Men bears within its pages this simple truth of the human condition and destiny.

No Country for Old Men is the interwoven narrative about the life of three men after they are sucked into a miasmatic void caused by a failed drug deal. The characters are Llewelyn Moss, who found $2 million dollars after he stumbled on the site of the failed drug deal where everyone is dead or dying; Sheriff  Ed Tom Bell, tasked with investigating the drug deal; and Anton Chigurh, who is hired by a powerful crime boss to retrieve the money and the drugs from the scene where death rules supreme.

The book then becomes a sort of a triple-threat game of cat and mouse with one character running on the heels of another. At the center of the chase is Moss as he is caught between the tug-of-war battle of Chigurh and Bell. His life or death is dependent on who can reach him first or whether he can escape both entirely. In this way, the trajectory of the story is now dependent on the actions of the characters and at the end is the culmination of their actions while they were chasing and running away from each other.

The plot may seem as a simple story of good against evil. But what complicates the narrative is that being good in the novel is not always the best thing. This can be deduced from the monologues spoken by Bell about the place of morality in a world of evil; and from the internal thoughts of the characters as they try to rationalize their fates.  Reading such passages will have a profound effect on the reader as he/she internalizes what the characters are saying.

The characters are of special note. They seem to be from different spectra of morality and thus their choices and philosophies are different from each other.

Moss is always contemplating about how the $2 Million that he stumbled upon by accident has changed his life for better or worse and how he cannot come back to his old life with his wife. All his actions are motivated by his desire to get himself and his wife out of the tangle that he has got himself into. Moss, within the spectrum of morality, is a gray character which means he both have bad characteristics, which has often saved him from harm, and good characteristics, which is sometimes the cause of his misfortunes. The juxtaposition of Moss’ morals and its effects on his life can make the reader wonder what path should one take in order to survive.

Chigurh, on the other hand, is pure evil and menace, with a chilling name to match, who will do everything to achieve his goals. He is a rampaging locomotive of malevolence and destruction from which there is no salvation and one character has even described him as a killer with principles who, once he has decided his course of action, will stop at nothing to reach his objectives. His principles or his morality is that he does not kill without reasons and his actions are pure acts of will. Occasionally, he will give his victims a chance of survival through a coin toss and this further expounds on the role of chance in the novel both as a source of ruin and of deliverance.

Bell, lastly, is the typical moral compass of any story. He is a man with an innate sense of justice and virtue but who regards the past as his halcyon days where everything was still in order and where chaos does not reign. In fact, most of Bell’s monologues and some of his dialogues with other characters involve his rumination of the kind of decay that is eating away at, not only his county, but his country as well. Bell is the most reflective of the three main characters as he always question his place in a world where the good is increasingly becoming insignificant and that does not respect his authority.

The novel is a meditation on the real place of values and virtues in a society that has long abandoned such ideas. Those who are trying to resolve the conflict by using their ideals and some semblance of virtue – Moss, Moss’s wife, Bell – end up dead or defeated. While the one who has no principle except vendetta – Chigurh- has survived and has evaded answering for his psychopathic spree of violence. The only point where the reader can see that Chigurh is vulnerable is when he was involved in a car accident and he suffers from broken bones. It reminds the reader that Chigurh is still human and that he is still vulnerable to the intricacies of fate and it drives home the point that no one is invulnerable to the whims of chance.

The book has self-reflective properties and it made me think about the things about the violence and degradation that we are now facing in society and I felt powerless the more I thought about it. However, such thoughts are understandable since No Country for Old Men is not a happy book with a resolved ending. It just drives home the point that all we can do is to hold on to what we believe in and hope that it is enough to help us survive.

All in all, No Country for Old Men is not about the drug deal gone wrong, nor is it about the violence that resides within the pages. Instead, the book is about the human characters and their individual struggles inside a world where morality is slowly escaping the grasp of their hands and where the devil is slowly becoming king.

Rating: 4/5




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