Oof. This is not my cup of tea… or shot of whisky. There’s a reason I don’t read horror books. I’m not exactly squeamish, but I don’t really enjoy an excess of violence. That said, I’d rather read a book like this than watch the movie of it. Did it have a great sense of setting? Of Texas? Probably yes. Did I like the book? Not really, but I can see the quality of the writing, and I will probably try something else by McCarthy in the future.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are currently in Texas.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, begins in Terrell County, Texas, along the Rio Grande and the border with Mexico. It ranges throughout that county, but takes detours to Odessa, El Paso, into Mexico, and even briefly to San Antonio. In the few landscape descriptions, we get a good sense of the desolate Texan desert along the border.

The antelope were a little under a mile away. The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself. He lowered the binoculars and sat studying the land. Far to the south the raw mountains of Mexico. The breaks of the river. To the west the baked terracotta terrain of the running borderlands.

Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men

We even get an occasional detail like this:

The rocks there were etched with pictographs perhaps a thousand years old. The men who drew them hunters like himself. Of them there was no other trace.

Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men

There are a few descriptions of the Rio Grande:

Where he reached the river it made a broad sweep out of a canyon and carried down past great stands of carrizo cane. Downriver it washed up against a rock bluff and then bore away to the south. Darkness deep in the canyon. The water dark. He dropped into the cut and fell and rolled and rose and began to make his way down a long sandy ridge toward the river.

Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men

And there are some interesting observations that can be made about the people–about the prevalence of boots and hats (and guns), and the people’s familiarity with the most popular brands of all three. Here, the Sheriff is talking to a teenager, asking about a man he’d seen.

Was he wearin boots. Yeah. I think he was wearin boots. What kind of boots. I think they might of been ostrich. Expensive boots. Yeah.

Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men

Personally, I couldn’t tell you that a pair of boots looked like it was made from ostrich hide, even now, let alone when I was in high school. But there are communities where I’m sure the kids can distinguish between all the various high end cars or shoes, so it probably fits.

Another Texas oddity was this comment about the position of Sheriff:

There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as a county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say that it is. Does it work? Yes. Ninety percent of the time. It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all.

Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men

I don’t know if this is still true in Texas–the book was set in 1980–but my first thought was that this is how you wind up with criminal investigations like the one in Joe R Lansdale’s book The Bottoms, where the person in charge of the investigation has no clue how to run one.

Texas comes through loud and clear in the dialogue and in the sections that are the Sheriff’s observations.

Them letters was dog-eared and tore and covered with mud and I dont know what all. The thing about them letters. Well for one thing you could tell they were just country people. I dont think he’d ever been out of Irion County, let alone the State of Texas. But the thing about them letters was you could tell that the world she was plannin on him comin back to was not ever goin to be here. Easy to see now. Sixty some years on. But they just had no notion at all.

Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men

Despite the fact that it’s loosely a crime novel, it’s really a Western. McCarthy’s text–his dialogue in particular–is so spare it’s hardly there. In fact, there were a number of times when it was so spare I had to stop and try to figure out what had happened. I’m usually in favor of the writing technique of “show, don’t tell,” but McCarthy went overboard here–he hardly did either. And yet, it was surprisingly readable–smooth and flowing.

The exception to the sparse, hardly-there narrative style was the excerpts from the Sheriff’s journal or memories. Those were verbose and descriptive, and wonderfully Texan. Now that I’m reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, I’d describe the Sheriff as Gus (the laconic, smart-assed talker), and the rest of the book as Call (the stoic, word-miser).

Overall, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was probably a pretty good one for our reading challenge. It felt like reading a Western movie crossed with a Shakespeare tragedy–showdown at noon and everyone except the bad guy dies, even the bystanders. The writing style was spare but with lots of run on sentences, and blessedly few details about all the deaths. It was decidedly not my favorite book, but given the fact that I disliked most of the plot, and never connected with any character except the Sheriff and his wife, the fact that it was so easy to read leaves me extremely impressed with Cormac McCarthy as a writer…

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Books, South (Central), South (Western)


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