where the writers are
On McCarthy`s "No Country for Old Men"
Book Cover, Random House

Each book from Cormac McCarthy should be sold with a free double caché of strong black coffee, and, prior to reading, all available lines to the 21st century - laptops, phones and post boxes should be firmly shut down.

A long cool bottle of water might also be adviseable since his latest bloody trek through the border zone between the U.S. and Mexico is a brutal dance macabre between three men - Llewlyn Moss, Sherrif Bell and an unrepentant force of violent Nature, Chigurh. And it`s a dance on which the searing South West Texas sun will never set until the last shot is fired.

Their core aim - as shared by circling drugs gangs and corporate heads - is the loot from a deal-gone-wrong and as stumbled upon by Vietnam-veteran Moss who soon finds himself, once a hunter, now the hunted prey.

The narrative is made uncomfortably compelling by McCarthy`s shifting narrative perspective that cuts across events and characters without easy foreshadowing. Action is often described, but crucial information - like who exactly is doing the action - is often delayed, thus causing much uncertainty and tension in the reading process. This delaying narrative strategy keeps us in a dual mode - often just behind the event while it is happening and thus we are artfully embroiled in dangerous situations, though, like the characters themselves, without always the necessary means of survival. The reading process would not be so disarming for readers practiced in film scripts that similarly and abruptly takes us to the centre of each new scene, but without full knowledge of its present significance.

Similarly in McCarthy, the focus is on impressionistic but but brilliantly conveyed action, with very little internal accounting for psychological motivation (other than the simple wish for an easy life or, more immediately, a quick respite from incoming rifle fire). And this is felt keenly in the case of Chigurh who, harldy a character in the normative sense, lives and kills by an unforgiving moral code that is outside familiar strictures of right and wrong, good and evil. His ruthless compliance with Fate is well beyond the norms of the Constitution. But for all its brutal stench and quick-fire plotting, McCarthy is smart enough to weave in some intriguing dramatic ironies that are best left for each reader to fathom and appreciate for themselves.

Furthermore, what makes the novel so appealing (though that`s not quite the word) is how it extends the McCarthy oeuvre that began with "Blood Meridian" in the early 1990s and that propelled its reader into the wretched American-Mexican Wars of the early 19th century. The twisted history of the two countries was then the background of McCarthy`s three subsequent novels of the 1990s - "All The Pretty Horses", "The Crossing", and "The City of the Plains". Now in paperback, titled "The Border Trilogy", they similarly tracked the same tortured and uncertain history into the 20th century.

With "No Country For Old Men", McCarthy extends his historical reach into the 1980s as veteran stalks veteran through car lots, motels and open desert of the same arid region now serving as the open firing range for ruthless rival drug dealers and as populated by lost castaways from a Sam Peckinpah movie. And, as with "Blood Meridian", each central character has had his soul and conscience scorched by previous 20th-century wars, where their survival skills - primarily listening in the dark or pausing momentarily in a rented car - have been primed and tested in the jungles of Vietnam. The whole country seems morally and fatally stymied by the fallout of past wars.

"No Country For Old Men" comes with the plaudits that it deserves - a "harrowing, disturbing, sad, endlessly surprising and resonant novel" (The Spectator); "...a severed head and shoulders over anything else written in America this year (The Independnent); "...steeped with the sorrow about the moral degredation of the legendary American West" (Financial Times).

The recent 2008 Oscar nominations and New York Critics Awards for the film version from the Cohen Brothers - a splendid return to form for them - will ensure deserved hefty sales and, hopefully, a wider adult readership for a contemporary author of some magisterial and influential significance. Hopefully, as well, it will lead the trail back to the apocalyptic charring house that is "Blood Meridian", which, for this reader at least, will stand as McCarthy`s lasting masterpiece.

McCarthy`s world isn`t one to live in. But it`s a grimly healthy and challenging one to have to travel through. But only for awhile, and along, that is, with that strong black coffee. And, as with the film, keen wizard fans had best stay in the library.

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