No Country for Old Men isn’t just that really fantastic Cohen brothers film. It’s also a book, written by everybody’s favorite Texan writer, Cormac McCarthy! Hooray no quotation marks and terse sentences!
It’s actually taken me a few weeks to come up with a proper way of writing about this book. That’s not because I didn’t enjoy it, or because I didn’t understand it, but simply because the Coen Brothers created such a perfect adaptation of the novel that it’s hard to think of what more there is to say. I had the book to expand on the action and themes of the film, but really the movie is so painstakingly close to the book, that 95% of the experience is the same. I don’t mean that to sound negative, as clearly the credit should go to Mr. McCarthy for crafting such an excellent story, but if you have experienced the film, you know almost exactly what the book will give you.
If you’ve read a McCarthy book before, you know what to expect. Incredibly restrained prose that still evokes a kind of poetic beauty; stoic Texans and Mexicans who are incredibly resourceful and capable of fantastic turns of phrase; deep abiding love; no quotation marks, and an unflinching barrage of brutal violence. It’s a harsh and uncaring universe out there, and there’s no such thing as karmic justice, so kill or be killed. Hard men have come up out this world, and the men that still live by some code of goodness are being badly outpaced by those without restraint. The essence of the book is the mental and physical battle between a normal who succumbs to impossible temptation and gets in over his head, a well meaning Sheriff watching in horror as the drug war washes his county in blood, and what is essentially the living embodiment of destruction, and the trail of bodies that their chase creates. The book moves at a fast clip, and McCarthy manages to evoke lurid imagery and characters with the least possible number of words. The violence is sudden and disturbing, the characters are all unique and the chess game they play for massive stakes is fascinating to experience.
With no right and no wrong, and no one favored or spared from blind luck, it is a very rare kind of book. Some may not like that the true protagonist is Sherriff Bell rather than Llewellyn Moss, but I find this choice to allow for a much broader perspective on the world. If I had to find some gripe to give about the book, I would say that the epilogue lasts for far too long. After the situation with the money and Llewelyn is finished, the Sherriff’s internal monologue and philosophical thoughts continue on for a number of chapters, both to wrap up loose ends, and wonder about the nature of the universe. I can’t say that it was bad, but perhaps too much all at once, and more than I felt the story needed. Even so, McCarthy manages some of the more poignant bits of writing in this segment, and saves it from mere navel gazing.
It’s a book that is impossible to stop reading, as dryly funny as it is bleak and philosophical. Yes, you’ve probably seen where this trail takes you, but McCarthy is one of the finest modern writers, and this is one of his best works.