Monday, April 14, 2008

Cowboy Hemingway By Way Of Stephen King

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy combines cowboy stoicism with Hemingway’s fatalism. It is written in a laconic vernacular matched to the people it presents so vividly, and by the end you understand that it just might be a horror novel, along with everything else it is. Obliquely, there are shades of Stephen King’s The Stand in it.

What else the book is makes a long list. It is powerful, it is immense fun to read, and it is philosophically serious in ways most philosophers could not touch. What is wrong with everything? Why do people do such horrible things? Is there any way to stop this train wreck? The book is an answer to these and many other deep, troubling questions, including what it means to grow old and how to behave when the old ideals no longer work.

When it comes to the moral decay at the core of our national catastrophe, McCarthy does not flinch. Serious fiction in popular form describes this book perfectly. It demonstrates how much more truth fiction carries, as compared with nonfiction and so-called news. It also shows us our own inertia and sometimes our apathy. The people in it live, breath, bleed, and die in ways you recognize and can empathize with. You’ve met them all.

You might be one of them.

As prose, McCarthy’s book is laconic enough for Gary Cooper at his most eloquent. And yet it wriggles with life like you’ve picked up a snake. As fiction, it is dead real. As a rumination on how life works, it is terrifyingly blunt and exhilaratingly swift in its divine justice.

What lets it into the Horror chamber is the whiff of brimstone surrounding the character of Anton Chigurh. He is the quintessential killer. He seems indestructible, maybe literally. He comes and goes like a ghost, so much so that not all the cops in the book believe he’s real. By the end of the book, despite or maybe because his portrayal is so vivid, you’re not sure either.

No one in the book is a paragon. No one is a caricature. People are real, dialogue is pitch perfect, and every voice comes through clear and full.

Unforeseen consequences are one of its themes. Temptation is there, and the high cost of minor human foibles, along with duty, honor, courage, and cowardice. Not all the sociopaths carry guns in this book. Some of the worst have clean hands and air conditioned penthouse suite offices. Big Oil and Big Drug Smuggling are so intertwined as to be the same basic thing, and addictions are addressed, too, but not the narcotic kind.

There is a killing spree in the book but it is no Starkweather report. It is as logical and rational as clockwork, and it is even explained by Chigurh, who is among the most fastidious killers to walk the earth.

Yes, this is a book full of violence. It is also full of compassion, irony, and humor. Not Roadrunner humor, nor Twain humor. More like Ambrose Bierce alone in a room after a bad day.

There are moments of life so bright the reader laughs aloud in recognition. There are instances of insight so true tears well up. It is the kind of book you can read in one sitting but stretch out for a week so you can savor it.

I haven’t seen the Coen Brothers movie yet. Looking forward to it, but in no hurry. The book’s enough.

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