This is McCarthy’s most accessible work but it’s no less brilliant as a result
Typically, when I read Cormac McCarthy, I do so with a dictionary by my side. I consider myself to have an above average vocabulary but McCarthy generally confounds me at least once a page. Normally I would find this lack of accessibility to be a pretentious affectation of the sort that offends my egalitarian sensibilities. But the thing with McCarthy, is this — When I look up that confounding word, I inevitably find that it is the most precise word that could possibly be used to convey what McCarthy is saying. His use of language is gorgeous in its precision and it elevates me as a reader.
Reading Cormac McCarthy is typically hard work as a result. That effort is rewarded but McCarthy is not exactly a light read. I had heard that No Country For Old Men was an exception and this turned out to be the case. No Country For Old Men was apparently McCarthy’s attempt at writing an airport novel — One of those light page turners that sucks you in and keeps you occupied amidst the distractions of travel. McCarthy was wildly successful and the result is a book that is not just accessible, but almost impossible to put down.
Incredibly, McCarthy does not sacrifice quality in the process of “dumbing down” his prose. No Country For Old Men is a fantastic story with complex, well-developed characters. Like everything McCarthy writes, it operates on multiple levels. After putting it down I would find myself turning the story over in my head, pondering its implications and considering the philosophies espoused by the various characters.
McCarthy occupies the same mental space for me as Werner Herzog. Both men are geniuses — brilliant visionaries who never fail to captivate my imagination. The funny thing about both artists, to me, is that their world views could not be further from my own. Both men take a pretty grim view of this world and our place in it. This stands in contrast to my generally positive out look on life, the universe and everything in it. It’s not that I deny the bad in this world — I would not enjoy their work if I did not recognize underlying truths — it’s just that I tend to see that bad balanced with equal measures of good and I feel strongly that our realities are shaped by which side of that balance we choose to focus on. In McCarthy’s world, this would make me someone who carries the light — persisting resolutely as a man who tries his best to be good in a world that is full of evil.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is such a character in No Country For Old Men and his resolute decency provides a lifebuoy for the reader in what could otherwise be a pretty depressing novel. This turned out to be a good thing. On the heels of Charles Willeford’s Pickup and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, I went to the book store with the express purpose of finding something a bit less depressing. Not finding anything on my list, I browsed the store for a half hour before walking out with No Country For Old Men. At the time I thought this was an epic failure but I was pleasantly surprised. No Country For Old Men is dark, but it’s not depressing.
The Coen Brothers are my favorite directors and I saw No Country For Old Men when it was first released in theatres. I loved the movie and was very happy when it won the Academy Award. I own the movie on DVD but haven’t gotten around to watching it again since that initial viewing. The movie was incredibly faithful to the book. You might think this would spoil the book but, to the contrary, it enhanced the reading experience for me. McCarthy’s prose, simplified as it may have been for this book, is a joy to read and the Coen Brother’s imagery was so iconic, and the performances of all of the movie’s primary actors so strong, that I held in my head a vivid recollection of each scene as it unfolded. It was as if I was watching the movie all over again, with the addition of McCarthy’s fantastic prose as an added bonus.