Sunday, February 10, 2008 07:48 PM
(Last updated on Friday, March 27, 2009 03:11 PM)
Book Report - No Country for Old Men
 by Fëanor

(UPDATE: After talking with others about the book, thinking about it some more, and reading more of McCarthy's work, I've decided I was wrong about some of the conclusions I came to about this book. I've always been really bad at spotting unreliable narrators, and I always tend to assume a narrator's point of view is the same as that of the author, or at least that the author is approving of the narrator's point of view, and I think I made an error when I did that here.)

After recently seeing the film No Country for Old Men, I became curious about the book it was based on, as I mentioned in my review. My friend Erik reminded me that he was a fan of Cormac McCarthy's work, and said NCfOM was probably a good place to start, so I went looking for the book at my local library. Other people must have had the same idea, however, because all the regular copies of the book were out. But they did still have a large print copy, and although I felt a little weird about taking that one out, as I really don't need large print (it looked like the book was shouting at me when I opened it up), I did really want to read the book, and poppy didn't think there was anything wrong with it, so I went ahead and did it.

The book, like the movie, is about a pretty average man named Llewellyn Moss who, while out hunting, comes upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, and decides to take the money. But a psychopathic killer named Anton Chigurh with his own set of strange principles is already seeking the money, and he will stop at nothing to get it. Meanwhile, the local sheriff, a good man named Bell, tries to discover why bodies are dropping all over his county, and how exactly he can stop it.

It's a dramatic, thrilling, action-packed, but ultimately melancholy and tragic story, full of moments of unexpected beauty and insight. It's told in an interesting way, divided into numbered chapters, with each of them divided further into sections, the first section always being a first-person narrative from the perspective of Sheriff Bell, written as if he's speaking directly to you, and the following sections being the actual story, told from the third-person limited point of view, often following Moss, but sometimes switching to Bell, Chigurh, or some other important character.

Unfortunately, another of the interesting things about the way the story is told is McCarthy's rather irritating misuse of punctuation. The man has something against quotes - of both the single and double variety. Not only does he refuse to mark off dialogue with them, he never even uses single quotes in contractions. The only time quotes of any kind appear at all is when indicating possession ("Bell's," for instance). I guess he couldn't think of a way to eliminate those and still have the text make sense. Still, although this stylistic affect thankfully doesn't make things too confusing to understand, it is annoying and, as far as I can tell, completely pointless.

The odd punctuation isn't the only interesting use of language. Bell is a simple Texas man whose grammar isn't always perfect, but who has a wonderful and unique voice, and a strong sense of right and wrong. Most of his first-person sections are a true joy to read; they usually take the form of a series of short, fascinating stories told to you simply and from the heart. And indeed, all of the characters in the book who are native to Texas have a pleasant accent and amusing slang, which are entertaining and realistic (or at least, they seem realistic; I don't talk to enough Texans to know for sure). The other narrative portions of the book are written mostly in very plain and matter-of-fact language, accompanied by the occasional dip into poetic descriptives, which are made all the more startling and beautiful for being nestled amidst all that blandness. Of course, this can also make the poetic language occasionally seem oddly out of place and unrealistic.

Reading the book right after seeing the movie was an interesting experience. In some ways, the book's style is similar to that of the movie, and of the Coen brothers in general; McCarthy often simply describes the physical actions of the characters and the things they're seeing, and it's up to the reader to interpret why the characters are doing what they're doing, and what it means that they're seeing what they're seeing. Also, there are certain parts of the book that the movie copies so exactly - down to not only the exact words of the dialogue, but also the exact actions and gestures of the characters - that it was stunning to me. The Coen brothers managed to transfer these sections and pages directly from the format of literature into the format of cinema, without altering them one bit, and that's pretty impressive.

But of course, the movie and book also differ in many ways - in style, plot, character, and even meaning. The book, for instance, explicitly tells you the outcome of various events that the film leaves you to guess at. For instance, in the film you have to put together for yourself what you think happened to Moss at the end; you have to guess whether Chigurh gets the money or not; you have to guess whether Chigurh kills Carla Jean or not. In most cases, the guesses are pretty easy to make, but you are still left to do the work yourself. In the book, McCarthy describes in detail just what happened to Moss, just how Chigurh gets the money, and just what Chigurh does to Carla Jean. Although it was good to have my guesses confirmed, in a way I think I prefer the way the movie did things.

In fact, I prefer the movie in many ways. Don't get me wrong, it's a great book, extremely well written, and I'm very impressed by Mr. McCarthy. But the movie manages to make certain sequences more complex and dramatic by changing the events around slightly. I'm thinking particularly of the sequence wherein Moss returns to a hotel, takes another room, and removes the satchel of money from the vent because he's certain someone is in his original room. This scene in the book is short and to the point and there is little drama to it. In the movie it is so suspenseful and thrilling that it's almost painful, because we see Chigurh in the other room, killing many men, at the exact same time that Moss is removing the money from the vent.

Another unfortunate difference between the movie and the book is that the book goes on too long, trailing off with a whole string of unnecessary and repetitive sequences focusing on Sheriff Bell, well after the main narrative is over. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Bell is not only the ultimate narrator of the book, he is also its witness, its interpreter, and its conscience. But there's still just a little too much of him at the end here, and he just goes on and on well after he's already made his point.

What makes it worse is that I really don't like his point. Bell's interpretation of events is clearly McCarthy's; he is the one transmitting the moral of the story to us. And that moral is disappointingly simplistic, cliche, and boring. What Bell and McCarthy are essentially telling us with this story is that the kids these days are out of control; it's not like the good old days anymore; and the world is going to hell. First of all, I don't believe that's true, and second of all... is that seriously all you've got for us, McCarthy? That's the bit of wisdom you're trying to impart to us? You sound like every angry old white guy ever in the history of the world. Every old man says that the good old days were better and that the kids these days are out of control and the world is going to hell. And it's always at the same time completely true and completely false. Of course it's going to seem that way to you; it will seem that way to your children when they get older. But the world keeps on going, teetering on the edge of hell, and it hasn't ever fallen in yet.

What's particularly interesting to me about the book's message is that I don't feel it's the same message that the movie is trying to get across. In the book, Sheriff Bell complains about not understanding how there can be kids these days with green hair and bones through their noses, and speaks of that as a symptom of what's wrong with the world. In the movie, it's another peace officer entirely who says this, and his line elicited laughter from the audience I saw the movie with. Also, although Tommy Lee Jones' Bell says he agrees with the man, it's clear from the way he does so, and from his expression, that he doesn't really agree with him. The line and the man who says it are an object of derision in the film because what the man is saying is so ridiculous. It's what old men always say when the world moves on and leaves them behind. It's a cliche. What I realized after reading the book is that, in a way, the Coen brothers are - gently, to be sure - making fun of Cormac McCarthy in that scene.

The film certainly examines the idea that the world is different and darker now, but then, in the sequence in which Bell goes to visit his uncle, it discards that idea for the more compelling and believable idea that the world - or at least parts of it - has always been harsh, and has always been inhabited by strange, deadly men like Chigurh.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed both the book and film versions of No Country for Old Men. The novel is an impressive work of literature, very entertaining and very moving. But I found myself deeply disappointed by what I feel is the novel's moral. I've read a lot of books by cranky old white men, but few wherein it was so sadly obvious just how cranky and old and white the author is.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Cormac McCarthy (Not), Movies (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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