It has been said that there is no such thing as a new idea in fiction. The creativity and freshness of the art form lie in the particular way a story is spun. McCarthy has proven the truth of this adage in No Country for Old Men.
The plot is as familiar as they come—a drug deal gone bad, a satchel full of cash, and an ordinary Joe who stumbles upon the carnage and makes off with the money. Variations on this theme have been around for decades. In fact, the storyline is so common it has almost become the exclusive property of Hollywood scripters and crime writers. McCarthy however, is neither.
No Country for Old Men shares much of its noir aesthetic with The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel for which McCarthy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. The brusque, austere writing style, devoid of sentimentality and descriptive indulgences, feels right. What remains after you put the book down is not the bold protagonist, not the cold-blooded psychopath tracking him down, but the language, the engaging dialogue, and the narrator’s voice.
Of course, as any editor will tell you, story is everything. Mediocre writing can easily hide from the general public behind a great story. So, why does this novel work? Because, unlike other chase-the-money dramas, No Country for Old Men is not about the man on the run. In fact, the objective point-of-view McCarthy uses to tell his tale gives us almost no access to the mind of the protagonist, Llewellyn Moss. The only heart to which we are privy is Ed Bell’s, the low-key Sheriff who is trying to piece together the details of the book’s many crimes.
Throughout the novel, McCarthy switches to an internal, first-person narrative to reveal the sheriff’s perspective and specifically, his belief that society is in a downward spiral. What’s refreshing about Sheriff Ed Bell is his stoicism. After all, how many more aggressive, fast-talking cops with New York accents can the entertainment world handle? Sheriff Bell is not interested in busting heads. His motivation is to get to Llewellyn Moss before Chigurh, the sociopathic killer, and save him from certain death. He aims to protect, not dominate or punish in the alpha-male style of most police dramas.
Essentially, the story is a race, a page-turner that will have readers invested, in equal measure, in the fate of the three main characters—Llewellyn Moss, who succumbs to a temptation that few of us would be able to resist; Sheriff Bell, whose world-weariness is easily understood by anyone over a certain age; Chigurh, the sociopathic killer whose single-mindedness and stony conscious is somehow alluring.
Of course, a book’s ending usually defines its theme. In the case of No Country for Old Men, the theme seems to hover somewhere between morality and justice. Do not however, let the standard-issue plot fool you into thinking that the story will culminate with a triumphant ride into the sunset. McCarthy may have recycled an old plot, but in the hands of such a gifted novelist, most will hardly notice.