I resisted reading That is No Country For Old Men because the reviews were tepid, because McCarthy is probably my favorite living writer, and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I did go to the movie because I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed in that. My Hollywood expectations are too low. As it turned out, the film tore me up, and the more I talked about it with people the better I liked it. A copy of the book dropped into my life, and, by then insulated from disenchantment, I dived in.
It’s almost like reading the screenplay. Dialogue and scenes nearly word-for-word. The title line is, of course, from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”, (one of my favorite poems), and the book revolves, as that poem does, around an old man trying to make sense of the world he’s found himself in, wondering what’s become of the world he left behind. You don’t need to know that to understand the work, but it does add dimension:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
— those dying generations– at their song,
. . .
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
“Byzantium” is not bathed in blood the way No Country is, but the protagonists of both are searching for meaning beyond the demands and frailties of transient flesh.
That country had not had a time of peace of any length at all that I knew of … But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? Asks sheriff Bell. Who answers himself: And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart. And I dont have no intentions of carving a stone water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise.
It’s ruminations like that, culminating with the absolutely spellbinding closing words of the book (and movie) that lift No Country above the level of pulp fiction bloodletting. That and the utter relentlessness randomness of evil and violence. No one knows from which direction it will strike, only that it will. Pulp fiction generally has a sense of win/loss in the good and evil war. Not so here. So in a world so empty of patterns, so full of questions, how do we make sense out of all this teeming universal activity? Literature is supposed to help us do that. To me, No Country does in the strangest way. It has a way of leaving us satisfied with knowing some good questions and happy to leave the answers as mysterious as when we opened the first page. The book deserved a much more favorable press. It doesn’t take long to read it, but it will take a while to forget it. Even if you want to, which you might.