I just read “No Country for Old Men” in preparation for a viewing of the Coen brothers version of same. You would be hard pressed to call it a masterpiece (though many did), or indeed particularly impressive by McCarthy’s standards. I read everything up to “Blood Meridian” about ten years ago, then didn’t read the trilogy and caught up with him again on “The Road” which, frankly, is as good as everyone said it was. NCFOM feels slight, especially in comparison to the forbiddingly tumultuous invention of “Suttree” (incidentally one of William Gibson’s favourite novels.) If Irish writers have to choose between Beckett and Joyce then American writers (of a certain generation) have to choose between Faulkner and Hemingway and late McCarthy is certainly more in the latter camp than the former.
The obligatory “lean” “spare” style, the deliberate avoidance of not only Hemingway’s “ten dollar words” but of certain elementary prosodic courtesies to the reader i.e., the occasional substitution of “and” with a comma, produces the slightly wearing infelicities of style that over a few hundred pages make you long for a bit of prime William Gass. Not as drainingly intense as wilfully super-terse hardmen like David Peace (“I drank a pint. Fuck you. Then another. Billingsham was watching me. Fuck you. Fuck you all. Smoke in my eyes. The dead girl. Twelve years old. The hammer blows she’d suffered screaming in my head. I staggered outside and puked all over my shoes. Billingsham was behind me. Think you're a hard cunt, do you? He punched me in the face. I fell down spitting blood. Rolled into the gutter. Dead girl in her pink dress with a rosary twisted round her throat. The rain fell. No.No NO. I blacked out.” Continue for three hundred pages as reader develops migraine ) but even the elegiac reflections of the ole Sherrif aren’t especially insightful or moving, containing more than a hint of Gumpism, emphasising once again just how difficult it is to have those simple, decent, straight talking heroes who may not have studied in any fancy Colleges but have sure seen plenty a fellow like you mights be best avoiding round these here parts, come across as full of hard won wisdom as opposed to home-spun platitudes. The novel kind of stumbles to a close a good fifty or so pages after the main drama has been rather perfunctorily resolved with (SPOILER ALERT!!!!!) one of the main characters being killed offstage and the burden for the rest of the tale being carried along by the much less thrilling Sheriff, who basically brings no-one to justice and decides to retire. While it’s certainly unexpected and no doubt illustrates the radical contingency of death etc ( Mailer did a similar thing rather more effectively in “The Naked and the Dead” ) it’s a dramatic flaw, leaving the reader feeling somewhat cheated (so why did we bother with all that investment then!?) and it will be interesting to see how the adaptation plays this out. If it’s too faithful to the book then the end is going to be set in Bathos City, Texas.
I should also cheerfully point out how much I dislike the Coen brothers, whom I consider congenitally incapable of making a good (as opposed to a slick or clever) film. Expect Yet More Negativity (hereafter: YMN) from the Impostume when I do report back then!