Cormac McCarthy makes me want to give up on writing. There’s brilliant and then there’s McCarthy, who writes a mean taut lean prose that makes you sweat from the bleeding tension that suffuses every page. If I were a writing professor I’d give my class the passage where Chigurh walks into a gas station and subtly menaces its proprietor and dare them to find a single word to cut. There’s no fat marbling these pages. There’s nothing that doesn’t directly contribute to the whole. Poe said that each word in a short story should directly promote the atmosphere (see: House of Usher), and McCarthy has gone and taken this axiom and applied it wholesale across his novel.
I’m not going to bother with the plot, because the plot is almost incidental to what I love about this book. In short, a man named Moss comes across a drug deal gone band, absconds with the money, and is then hunted down by the interested parties across a series of motels.
What sticks in my craw however is McCarthy’s ability to take simple words and wreck holy vengeance across the page. His descriptions of the land are bone achingly piercing, terse as they are, and imbue everything with an Old Testament level of grimness and harsh beauty. It’s the perfect backdrop against which to smear a series of violent and poetic encounters.
Then take the action itself. He writes with a methodical and unsparing style. He doesn’t glory in the violence, does not indulge in torture porn. His violence is sudden, absolute, and final. It is in the very finality of his short descriptions of people being shot that we find ourselves shocked, startled. One moment a character is living and breathing on the page, and then they are stopped cold and gone.
But what is it? What is it about his writing that gets under my skin, makes me stare at the wall with hooded eyes and curse under my breath? It’s that relentless power. That sense of mastery. You never doubt what he’s saying. You never second guess him, and instead read with a breathless anticipation, fully expecting him to show you how the world works, the true motivations of men. It’s as if he’s simply recounting a series of events that he witnessed, so honest and bleak is his narrative.
McCarthy is preoccupied with the vortex of violence that exists in the world, that exists in every man’s heart, and that will drag us all down through our desire for power and dominance. Chigurh, Judge Holden, these are all avatars, angels of violence, inhuman figures that we watch stride across the page with fear and wonder. Those around them are human in the manner we understand, but all succumb to the frailties of human flesh. There are no heroes in No Country For Old Men. Even Moss, the protagonist, is spurred on by a fatal greed that undoes his life and that of those around him. There is no reprieve from the human condition, and McCarthy makes it clear that we are all as a species forged of the same primordial matter as the rest of the animal animal kingdom. We are not apart from nature, but living tooth and claw in jungles of our own creation. Read McCarthy and prepare for the death of idealism.