In a novel as unrelentingly bleak, yet full of colorful characters and fascinating dialogue (depending upon one’s tastes in such matters), there is no shortage of striking images or quotes in Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men. From the novel’s very beginning, the reader is treated to the image of a clearly professional psychopathic killer at work, including a description of the oxygen tank the newly-arrested prisoner carried, as the about-to-be-strangled-to-death deputy describes over the phone to Sheriff Bell,
“. . .he had some sort of thing on him like one of them oxygen tanks for emphysema or whatever. Then he had a hose that run down the inside of his sleeve and went to one of them stunguns like they use at the slaughterhouse.”
This description of the tools of the trade of Anton Chigurh, the psychopath whose relentless search to recover stolen drug money provides McCarthy’s novel its most surrealistic moments, is but a hint of the images that will follow. Llewelyn Moss, the poor welder and war veteran whose accidental discovery of the scene of a drug deal gone bad sets the story in motion, stumbles upon three shot-up trucks surrounded by dead bodies and an equally dead dog. As McCarthy describes the scene,
“There was a large dead dog there of the kind he'd seen crossing the floodplain. The dog was gutshot. Beyond that was a third body lying face down. He looked through the window at the man in the truck. He was shot through the head. Blood everywhere.”
The physical descriptions provided by McCarthy lend No Country for Old Men a sense of despair and destitution that suggests an endlessly depressed atmosphere. The story, of course, takes place in the deserts and small towns of South Texas, where dust and heat are a constant and Mexicans and Americans intermingle in an often fragile state of coexistence. One of the novel’s protagonists, Sheriff Bell, is the “old man” of the title, and a character who has seen too much and found that the key to his success is to tolerate as much incivility as possible while keeping the lid on the kind of explosions of violence that finally erupt at that scene in the desert.
No Country for Old Man is about the hopelessness many in his world see as a permanent feature of life. During an exchange between Bell and another old-timer, the latter makes a comment that suggests the cynicism and pessimism that permeate this story:
“I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I'd have the same opinion about me that he does.”
McCarthy’s story is a constant barrage of hopelessness and regret. Moss, at the diner with the woman with whom he is now traveling, observes,
“You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. . .Your life is made out of the days it's made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who's layin there?”
A particularly insightful bit of dialogue occurs in the hospital, where Moss is recuperating and is visited by Carson Wells, another hired killer. The subject of the conversation is Anton Chigurh:
Moss: How would you describe him.
Wells thought about it. I guess I'd say that he doesnt have a sense of humor.
Moss” That aint a crime.
Well: That's not the point. I'm trying to tell you something.
This exchange is characteristic of the dialogue and ruminations that run throughout the story. The only characters in the novel who don’t represent the walking dead are the killers. All the rest are beaten down by life. As Moss suggests to a young woman,
“. . .there's a lot of bad luck out there. You hang around long enough and you'll come in for your share of it.”
And, then, for good measure, he adds,
“If there's one thing on this planet you don't look like it's a bunch of good luck walkin around.”
On virtually every page of No Country for Old Men there are images and/or dialogue or thoughts that qualify as “striking.” Anton Chigurh is the definition of a striking image; the unceasing pessimism that permeates this book, however, provides its charm.