Saturday, May 20, 2006

Book 33: No Country for Old Men

When you categorize a novel as genre fiction you minimize it. Whether it is a science fiction novel, a western, or a mystery, the book is diminished because you say the book is a good western and not just a good novel. This allows for the categorization of Literature with a capital L and then sub-genres. But the "finest" novels are alwas Literature. If the author is really good, then his or her work can defy a genre categorization. Toni Morrison, for example, does not write "African American" fiction, she just writes good books. Cormac McCarthy does not write "westerns", he writes good books and tells a good story. No Country for Old Men is no exception. McCarthy nails this one, a modern day "western".

Names are almost unimportant here. The basic story is that a man comes across the aftermath of a bloodbath. Something bad went down and there are multiple vehicles, multiple dead bodies, the disappearance of some drugs, and a suitcase filled with more than two million dollars. He takes the suitcase. He disappears. Searching for him is the town sheriff who only wants to make sure that this man is okay and nothing bad happens to him. Searching for him is a bounty hunter of sorts, a man who leaves a trail of death in his wake. Searching for him is a man trying to recover the money to the rightful (or wrongful) owner. This man knows that people will be after him. Two million dollars does not disappear without people taking notice.

Cormac McCarthy writes a minimalist novel. Descriptions are spare, dialogue terse. Words are not wasted here. One running technique in McCarthy's writing is that dialogue is not in quotation marks but just flows as part of the sentence. At first it is a little jarring but after a chapter or two it just blends right in and adds to the story rather than distracts. What is most effective with No Country for Old Men is that McCarthy builds tension as the danger to the protagonist grows but shocks the reader with explosive acts of violence which change the course of the novel at each instant. There is raw power in No Country for Old Men. By the end of the novel we see that everything is a shade of grey, there are no white hats and no black hats here. And in the end I wished that McCarthy had spent another fifty pages telling this story.

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