where the writers are
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I knew a prominent woman in El Paso--still know her, in fact.  One time the fact came up that Cormac McCarthy lived--perhaps still lives--in El Paso. I expressed admiration for him.  She laughed in a light way and said, "Oh, him.  He writes these books, but you know where you'll find him? He'll be in the pool hall, wasting time like anyone else."

When writers aren't writing, I don't know what they're supposed to be doing if they're not supposed to waste time in pool halls like anyone else.  I also don't know why familiarity breeds contempt, which was the undertone of her comment.

It's difficult to talk about writing unless you really read and can really talk and perhaps can really write. The words whiz past but they are difficult to encapsulate and make yours.  Generally the writing you read is better than your everyday way of talking; more time has gone into it, more revision, more cunning and more passion.  And besides, do people even like reading things by Cormac McCarthy, especially a book as gratuitously violent as No Country for Old Men? Who wants to talk about it?

I saw the movie first and more or less wrote it off because of the robotic way Javier Bardem, playing Anton Chigurh, went about killing people. Whack, you're dead. Whack, you, too. Whack, everyone's dead and even if the man killing everyone is shot and smashed-up, he just keeps on trucking.  And then there was Tommy Lee Jones playing the affable, befuddled, mystified, horrified, worn-out sheriff chasing Anton Chigurh, more or less hoping that he didn't catch him.

But we come now to the book, and the hammer-on-the-nailhead sentences.  That's some whacking, the way McCarthy puts mountains where they're supposed to be and relationships where they're supposed to be and demoralization and drowning in the sea of dope smuggling where it is supposed to be. 

It's almost criminal to write so well, having learned so many deadly lessons from Faulkner perhaps more than anyone else.  And it's almost criminal to be able to portray the pitiable puniness of the young and the old on the wings of chance, always about to fall off.  Heads you live, tails you die.

Chigurh in the book remains over-the-top evil, a philosopher of death, a man whose ethos is aligning himself with fate. He's a hell of a lot more intriguing, however, than Bardem in the movie. Then the sheriff, wonderfully called by his first and middle names, Ed Tom.  His interior monologues remind me of the Bundrens in As I Lay Dying.  The speech in these passages is insightful, terse, and arresting. Also colorful.  Ed Tom serves as the novel's conscience and commentator and elegist. He's all about admitting that he's no match for the weirdos populating his county in Texas, certainly not for the cast of misfits that figure in this story.

The question the novel poses is, Has the world become worse?  That's hard to answer. Generally, I think it hasn't.  It's still ghastly, but worse? 

One way to measure our degradation is to consider this: When I wanted to be sure I had recalled the Bundrens' name correctly, I looked As I Lay Dying up on Google.  It was listed third, not first.  Some rock band or other got the first two rungs on the ladder.  This is definitely cultural decay, but now I'm sounding like Ed Tom, and I ought to get out of the way and suggest you go from here to reading No Country for Old Men and if you haven't, As I Lay Dying--the proper As I Lay Dying.

Or you can hang out in pool halls like anyone else.