Until its final quarter No Country for Old Men is a chase novel, with merciless killer Anton Chigurgh, an assorted group of Mexican drug dealers and sheriff Ed Tom Bell on the trail of Llewelyn Moss, who is on the run with a suitcase full of cash. Moss is out hunting when he stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. In amidst the bodies he finds the drugs, the cash and one dying Mexican. He leaves with the cash but later, filled with guilt, returns to help the Mexican. In doing so he is spotted and so begins the chase.
Though the framework is pure thriller this is a literary novel and not just because of McCarthy’s slightly irritating style, which dispenses with speechmarks and apostrophes in words like don’t and can’t. Though the style feels gimmicky, McCarthy’s linguistic precision is phenomenal; the book rattles along, events are frequently confusing and yet throughout McCarthy maintains a real clarity of purpose and finds time for a delight for detail.
It’s a well balanced story. Our sympathies are with Moss, the Vietnam veteran whose impulsiveness leads him into trouble, Bell, whose monologues break up the sections of the book, provides the moral heart but it is Chigurgh the murderer guided by a warped moral code, who fascinates most.
With three-quarters of the book gone, McCarthy suddenly slams on the brakes and the story becomes more reflective with the central theme - the underlying violence on which America is built - given careful thought.
In the process McCarthy denies the resolution that would have satisfied most readers but what he delivers instead is deeper and more resonant.