No Country for Old Men.

Tentatively scheduled to be on Mike & Mike at 8:42 am EDT on Monday. Latest draft blog entry is posted, with updates on the Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Rangers.

I wanted to read Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men before seeing the film and knocked it off in just three days. The book is riveting, a quick-moving hard-boiled mystery along the Texas-Mexico border that starts when Llewelyn Moss comes upon the carnage at the scene of a failed drug shipment, decides to take the money he finds, and ends up hunted by the law and by an amoral hit man named Anton Chigurh. The story is interspersed with first-person passages from Sheriff Bell, who tries to make some sense of the violence and disregard for life he saw while pursuing Chigurh. It is quick and dense with action; McCarthy makes scenes like Chigurh buying medical supplies and treating himself for bullet wounds interesting and fast.

I still haven’t seen the film version, but if the movie was true to the book for the character of Chigurh, I’m surprised to see that any actor could win an Oscar for that role. Chigurh is central, and he is undeniably scary, but he is also completely one-dimensional and boring. He’s an automaton, a remorseless, reasonless killer with no personality and little action in the book beyond (sometimes inventive) murders. The reader sees Chigurh from the omniscient narrator’s perspective, but the narrator’s view is limited to Chigurh’s actions during the events of the novel, and we are left with the same confusion and lack of information as Sheriff Bell, who refers to Chigurh as a “ghost” and whose window into Chigurh is limited to the events laid out in the novel. We know Chigurh by the trail of dead, but we know nothing else of him. (One possible interpretation of Chigurh is that he is Fate or, more likely, Death, which would explain the lack of emotion and inability to change his course of action; I imagine you could write a whole thesis on that topic.) Sheriff Bell is the most interesting and complex character, but he’s not involved in the action – he’s the thoughtful, not-dead narrator who can’t figure out the hows and whys of what he witnessed – almost as if he’s God looking down on a world gone mad.

I also found McCarthy’s prose, a little unclear in the best of circumstances, to be at its most confusing in No Country, not just due to his standard aversion to punctuation but also due to the constant scene-shifting. There are two unnamed characters in offices whose roles were never clear to me, and, when one of them is killed, I wasn’t even sure which one it was.

The problems with thin characters only bothered me upon reflection – the book was a fantastic read because of the pacing and McCarthy’s tremendous and sometimes beautiful prose, and there’s plenty of material to consider after the fact that makes up for the weak characterizations. It’s not as good as Blood Meridian or The Road but still a solid read.

Next up: Back to Blandings Castle for some Heavy Weather.

The Road.

In The Road, the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Cormac McCarthy tells a story about goodness surviving in the most awful of circumstances, but does it in such a brutal, hopeless way that it’s hard to walk away from the novel feeling good about much of anything.

The Road takes place in a world devastated by a nuclear holocaust. Most of the world’s population appears to be dead, and all animal life is presumed extinct. Nuclear winter is gradually setting in; the sun is barely visible through the permanent cloud of ash and dush, and the temperatures are dropping. The story itself involves a man and his son moving south on The Road to try to get to a warmer climate, struggling to survive along the way, needing food and water while also avoiding the derelicts, bandits, and cannibals – yes, cannibals – who also travel The Road.

If you focus almost entirely on the interactions between the man and his son – identified, in true McCarthy fashion, as the Man and the Boy – you find a powerful and tender portrait of filial love. The Man is motivated to press on in hopeless circumstances because of his love for his son, who was born on the night of the first bombing. The other people remaining in the world are separated in the eyes of the Boy into “the good guys” and “the bad guys,” and while the latter appear to far outnumber the former, there are hints of goodness here and there in their limited encounters with the good guys, and of course, in the sacrifices the Man makes to give the Boy a chance at some kind of life.

It was hard for me to glean those glimpses of goodness or faith in the human spirit among the sheer desolation of the setting and the stark brutality of McCarthy’s view of humanity, which borders on misanthropy, muted only slightly by the glimpses of empathy he slips into the text at the bleakest moments. Yet the most powerful moments in the book are the most depraved and the most disturbing, not the few moments of tenderness of the Man towards the Boy or the one meeting with “the good guys” on the Road. The prose, as it was in Blood Meridian, was amazing, and McCarthy knows how to weave little mysteries into his writing with talk about “the fire,” but again, beautiful writing that looks into the abyss is still, at the end of the day, about the abyss. It’s a brilliant work, and I can see why it won the Pulitzer, but it was an arduous read and one I can’t say I enjoyed.

Next up: I’ve already finished Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and am most of the way through Sándor Márai’s Embers.

Blood Meridian.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one of the most brutally violent books I’ve ever read, but in spite of that, it’s also one of the most beautifully written.

McCarthy’s prose is often compared to Faulkner’s, and while some of that is because they’re both from the South (just like every right-handed pitcher from Stanford is automatically compared to Mike Mussina), there are definite similarities in their styles. There’s a lilting quality to many of McCarthy’s sentences, even when he defies conventional sentence structure. He can be sparse with details when it suits his purpose (the novel’s protagonist is never identified beyond “the kid”), but can also fire off a stream of seemingly minute details that in the end paint a rich picture of a scene, a character, a moment. He never descends into the sheer inscrutability that scares so many readers away from Faulkner, who was an original in many ways but who’ll always be loved and reviled most strongly for his prose.

The story revolves around the aforementioned kid, a fourteen-year-old who runs away from his father (his mother died giving birth to him) to head out west and falls in with a group of mercenaries who are hunting an outlaw named Gómez while also collecting scalps of Apaches, all under the auspices of the Mexican government. And that’s where it gets violent – ruthlessly, sociopathically so. The violence isn’t disturbing because it’s graphic – it is, somewhat – but because it’s so effortless and is achieved on so grand a scale. It is genocide writ small, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that McCarthy based it loosely on the real-life Glanton gang, using Glanton’s top lieutenant, Judge Holden, as the primary villain.

The plot didn’t pick up until I was about halfway through the book; the kid seems to take forever to fall in with Glanton/Holden’s gang, and it’s not until things start to go awry that the plot gets interesting, with the kid and Judge Holden gradually forming the central conflict that defines the last third of the book.

If you’ve got the stomach to get through several scenes of extreme – but, as TIME wrote in its summary of the book, never gratuitous – violence, then I would certainly recommend Blood Meridian to anyone who enjoys Faulkner, morality plays (even ones where the moral lines are blurred), or great American literature. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when the scalps start flying.