The setting of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is mostly 1980s Texas. The action takes place in both rural and wilderness areas in Texas as well as in towns along the Texas-Mexico border. For a short period of time, the setting briefly turns to a hospital in Mexico.

The story takes place during the drug wars of the 1980s. With the drug wars came a lawlessness reminiscent of organized crime in the 1920s when Al Capone ruled Chicago or of cowboy outlaws during the early settlement of the west. The weapons of the 1980s are more sophisticated and more devastating, but the ruthlessness and the lack of respect for human life are very similar.

The story begins out in a west Texas desert not far from Sanderson. Moss is hunting for antelope in an isolated spot that requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a horse, or a lot of hiking. It should be a quiet place, but because of its isolation, it is also a great setting for undetected drug smuggling.

The chase—the drug criminals after Moss—begins at this spot and continues, first on foot across the desert, then in cars, trucks, and busses back and forth between Odessa, Del Rio, Sanderson, and El Paso, across the lower western part of Texas.

Two of the characters, Moss and Wells, are veterans of the Vietnam War. Although this war is only briefly mentioned and is no big part of the story, the Vietnam War does color the setting. The toughness, the weapon skills, and the lack of fear of death that were honed in this brutal war define the two characters. Just the mention that they both had served in the war creates a temporary bond between them. They both size one another up based on what they know about that war. Two other wars, World Wars I and II, are also used as background.

In the middle of the novel, there is a big shoot-out at Eagle Pass, Texas. Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Mexico, make up one of several binational metropolitan areas along the Texas-Mexico border. After Moss is wounded in Eagle Pass, he hobbles across a bridge into Mexico to secure his money and to find medical help. He is also hoping to hide there until he is healed. But the cities are too closely bound. And Moss is quite easily found.

The overall impression of this novel is that there is no place to hide. That is true for the antelope that Moss was illegally hunting in the beginning of the story as well as for Moss himself. Though the desert is wide, the population is rather sparse in Western Texas, and the criminals and the cops keep bumping into one another. That is, all except for Chigurh, who keeps slipping away.


No Country for Old Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Before the publication of No Country for Old Men, the four decades of Cormac McCarthy’s writing career could be divided somewhat neatly into two phases, each of them comprising twenty years and four novels. The “southern” books, commencing with The Orchard Keeper in 1965, are set in Appalachia and weave indescribably dark, gothic themes of murder and sexual deviance. For the “Western” series, begun with the huge and ambitious 1985 novel Blood Meridian; Or, The Evening Redness in the West, McCarthy moves his landscape to America’s historical Western frontier during the most bloodthirsty years of North American settlement.

The first five books earned him an intense cult following as “a writer’s writer,” working in the traditions of William Faulkner and Herman Melville, while simultaneously breaking new ground for American literature. Sales figures were modest, befitting the highly literary efforts. It was his sixth novel, the slender and elegiac 1992 volume All the Pretty Horses, that launched the author into best-sellerdom, feature film, and the popular imagination. He followed it with two more books that would make up his Border Trilogy: The Crossing in 1994 and Cities of the Plain in 1998.

Over the decades, it was McCarthy’s use of language that remained ascendantan odd and unmistakable blend of sparse, white-hot dialogue and long, soaring descriptions of the natural world whose style at times echoes both William Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Novelist Rick Moody has written of Blood Meridian: “Few books are more bloodthirsty, few more hieratic, and rarely has the dark side of Western expansion been depicted with as much ruthless courage. Blood Meridian is one of those rare books by which one measures the literature entire of the generation that follows.” Literary critic Harold Bloom has declared McCarthy one of the four major contemporary American novelists, alongside Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth.

In advance of McCarthy’s ninth book, the rumor in publishing circles (the author himself is famously private, shunning publicity and most interviews) was that it would mark a return to his southern roots, with a story set in present-day New Orleans. Instead, McCarthy has surprised readers and critics with a taut, compact literary thriller that unreels against the background of urban sprawl in south Texas at the dawn of America’s “War on Drugs.” No Country for Old Men is at once controversial, a change in direction, and yet redolent of themes, threads, and preoccupations from his earlier work.

Llewelyn Moss, a former sniper in the Vietnam War, is stalking antelope in the Texas wilderness near his home when the view in his binoculars suddenly reveals vehicles and corpses riddled by machine-guns, the apparent aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Moss inspects the carnage firsthand and finds one of the shooting victims barely clinging to life. The man asks him for water, but Moss has none. Nearby, he finds a leather satchel containing almost two-and-a-half million dollars in unmarked bills and takes it home.

He is well aware that taking the money will propel him into a dangerous new life on the run“You have to take this seriously,” Moss tells himself, “You can’t treat it like luck”but his conscience pains him, and he cannot resist going back to the scene after dark with a jar of water for the dying man.

It is during that hasty errand of mercy that Moss’s main pursuer first spots him and opens fire with a rifle. Emblematic of the novel’s bleak tone, it is not the theft itself that sets the violent chase in motion but rather Moss’s gesture of empathy. In any case, the thirsty victim is already dead.

In the headlong action that follows, the fleeing Moss does not fully comprehend how dark his personal situation is. He has no way of knowing that the man trailing him is a professional killer of mythical proportions named Anton Chigurh (it rhymes roughly with “Sugar”), of whom one character later observes, “Even if you gave him the money, he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds.”

Leagues beyond amoral, Chigurh is such a ruthlessly efficient killing machine that some of the people in his growing death toll bore him no threat whatever but were...

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No Country for Old Men Bibliography

Anonymous. 2005. "Not a Pretty Sight." The Economist, 376 (8437): 79. This reviewer liked the story but found fault with some of McCarthy’s techniques.

Byrd, Chris. 2005. "Man on the Run." America, 193 (12): 26–27. Although Byrd praises McCarthy’s novel, he finds flaws in the story.

Edric, Robert. 2005. "Pursuit in the Desert." The Spectator, November 5. Edric writes that this book is another masterpiece for McCarthy.

Freeman, John. 2005. "Review of No Country for Old Men." Wall Street Journal, July 22, p. W.7. Freeman praises the author’s writing.

Hodge, Roger D. 2006. "Blood and Time." Harper’s Magazine, 1869 (February): 65–72. Hodge offers not only a review but an analysis of McCarthy’s works.

Kakutani, Michiko. 2005. "On the Loose in Badlands: Killer with a Cattle Gun." New York Times, July 18, p. E.1. Kakutani provides a mixed review of the novel.

Lent, Jeffrey. 2005. "Blood Money." Washington Post, July 17, p. T.06. Lent enjoyed reading the novel and recommends it.

Nicoll, Ruaridh. 2005. "Bloody Trail." New Statesman, 18 (885): 54–55. Nicoll provides an analysis and review of No Country for Old Men.

Williamson, Eric Miles. 2005. "Beyond Good and Evil." Los Angeles Times, July 24, p. R.3. Williamson delves into the meaning behind the words of McCarthy’s book.

Wood, James. 2005. "Review of No Country for Old Men." The New Yorker, 81 (21): 88. Wood analyzes the novel and the author’s style.

Zipp, Yvonne. 2005. "A Modern, More Brutal Western; Cormac McCarthy Writes of Drug Dealers and Hit Men Instead of Cowboys." Christian Science Monitor, July 12, p. 16. Zipp compares No Country for Old Men to McCarthy’s other novels and concludes she likes the other novels better.

No Country for Old Men Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

America 193, no. 13 (October 31, 2005): 26-27.

Booklist 101, no. 18 (May 15, 2005): 1614.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 9 (May 1, 2005): 500.

Library Journal 130, no. 11 (June 15, 2005): 59.

The Nation 281, no. 7 (September 12, 2005): 38-41.

The New Leader 88, no. 4 (July/August, 2005): 31-32.

New Statesman 134 (November 14, 2005): 54-55.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 16 (October 20, 2005): 41-44.

The New York Times 154 (July 18, 2005): E1-E4.

The New York Times...

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