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``No Country for Old Men'' by Cormac McCarthy; Knopf ($24.95)
When novelist and critic Dale Peck called fellow novelist Rick Moody "the worst writer of his generation" in 2003, most people in the book biz, however privately entertained they may have been, pronounced themselves appalled. To be sure, Peck's remark was intended to draw more attention to the reviewer than the reviewed; it succeeded.
What's more, bushwhackery, overstatement and broad-stroke condemnation are not sound critical tools. Book reviewing calls for fine work; just as you can't do brain surgery with a cudgel, it's plainly unfair to reduce a serious writer - or even a genre hack, for that matter - to a dismissive catch phrase.
Niceties aside, however, my reaction upon first hearing about the contretemps was: How does Peck choose just one? In an era in which fiction writers are given extra credit by critics for exhibiting talent and chutzpah, while conversely all too often being excused from the responsibility of writing a novel that's actually worth a reader's time, the woods are foul with scribblers whose bloated reputations overshadow their achievements. Take, for example, Cormac McCarthy.
Even critics sometimes fall short of perfection - really, it's true! - and I've long regretted the positive review I gave McCarthy's most famous novel, ``All the Pretty Horses,'' back in 1992. The writing was so damned fine it blinded me to the monstrous weaknesses of the storytelling, which did not emerge into view until some months later. Among these: the fetishizing of macho individualism; the way the narrative comes to a complete stop for two pages at a clip whenever McCarthy wants to describe the scenery; a stupefyingly sentimental romanticism that would make Barbara Cartland blush.
The recent ``No Country for Old Men,'' McCarthy's first novel in seven years, provides an opportunity to correct myself. Imagine my mingled dismay and delight, then, when the first couple of chapters teemed with clean, forceful writing that signaled this might actually be a good book - a really good book, in fact. The narrative opens with a crusty old Texan sheriff meditating, in a sort of rough-hewn interior monologue bordering on free verse, about sending a man to the gas chamber and other responsibilities of his job, while not too far away a bad guy named Anton Chigurh strangles a deputy with his own handcuffs and then murders a man in order to steal his car.
The real action gets started when a Vietnam vet named Llewelyn Moss, tracking a wounded antelope near the Rio Grande, comes across a scene in which several men have shot each other to death in a drug deal gone bad. Inside a bullet-ridden van he finds a quantity of packaged heroin; nearby is a satchel stuffed with more than $2 million. Moss takes the money, dreaming of a better life for himself and his 19-year-old wife, and lights out for Mexico. Bad men follow.
There ensues a sort of modern-day western - McCarthy's evident specialty - with Moss seeking to elude the Mexican drug smugglers who, not content with recovering their heroin, also want the money, though it soon becomes clear that his biggest worry is Chigurh, who turns out to be a former black-ops and/or special forces vet of undisclosed variety now seeking to drum up freelance business by recovering the missing money even though no one's asked him to. Everywhere he goes, people - good and bad - die, often in grotesque and bizarre ways; his favorite weapon is a pneumatic air gun, the kind used to kill cattle in slaughterhouses, that he keeps literally up his sleeve.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Bell - he of the laconic philosophizing - takes an interest not only in solving the mounting murders, but also in tracking down Moss. Especially after he meets Moss' young wife, whose frontier devotion to her man puts him in mind of his own beloved wife: "My wife was eighteen when we married," he tells the young woman during an interview. "Just turned. Marrying her makes up for ever dumb thing I ever done." A World War II veteran himself, he sees value in rescuing Moss from the men who want to kill him, not to mention is own misjudgments.
McCarthy handles the cat-and-mouse game he's set up with considerable dexterity. The story bubbles along at a fast clip, with few landscape-heavy set pieces to slow it down. McCarthy is especially effective at suggesting the brutality of men in the big-time drug trade. Fleeing through the countryside on foot, Moss weighs his chances, viewing the situation from the point of view of his pursuers: "If you knew there was somebody out there afoot that had two million dollars of your money, at what point would you quit looking for em? ... That's right. There ain't no such a point."
But like the proverbial dog returning to its vomit, McCarthy cannot resist indulging his customary hobbyhorses. It would be easiest to poke fun at Sheriff Bell, whose ruminations grow more ponderous each time his turn comes to dominate the narrative. If Bell is, as he appears, the author's mouthpiece, then McCarthy is a writer of uncommonly simple-minded conservatism, one who thinks national and social redemption begins with saying "sir" and "ma'am."
While there's nothing inherently wrong with conservative values, it is ludicrous to think that an aged and experienced lawman would be so naive. He laments the senseless cruelty of the deaths left in Chigurh's wake, seeing them as emblematic of the chaos overtaking society. But a peace officer who fought in a big war, solved a case in which a 14-year-old girl was killed for the fun of it - heck, a peace officer who reads the papers and watches television - could not be as believably shocked and disheartened by senseless violence as poor Bell is shown to be.
The book is rife with glaring sins, both of commission and omission. The story seems set in the present day, and it takes an attentive reader to figure out, based on Moss' age and his Vietnam service, that it's really set in the mid-1980s. Chigurh's motivation - not to mention his ridiculously literary name, suggesting as it does both "sugar" and "chigger" - are never sufficiently explained. Even a psychopath requires some motivation, and since Chigurh is not a sex killer - he doesn't murder for the thrill of it, but out of some vague and implausible personal code of honor - nothing he does makes dramatic sense. And perhaps the worst structural sin McCarthy commits is having the climactic confrontation between Moss, who proves himself pretty darned capable, and Chigurh, play out off screen. We don't see it unfold; we hear eyewitnesses and investigators telling Bell what happened. That's breaking faith with the reader.
The most wearying failing of the book, however, is the one most deeply shared with All the Pretty Horses. Stylistically and thematically, McCarthy, like many male writers of his generation - Jim Harrison, Robert Stone, Philip Caputo, to name but a few - is a direct literary descendent of Ernest Hemingway, sharing not only Hemingway's compressed writing style, but also his outdoorsy machismo, his fascination with "grace under pressure," and a profound lack of understanding about women.
All this is ponderously, teeth-on-edge romantic, and shields McCarthy from exactly the clarity that he wishes to impart. The world is a nasty, brutish place, he strains to show us, where men are men and a good woman is a pearl of great price. A more reductive and unrealistic worldview is hard to imagine. In the work of a major novelist, it is intolerable.
(c) 2005 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.