I recently finished reading No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. This is the third McCarthy novel that I have attempted, the second that I have read, and the first that I enjoyed. Violent, gruesome, at times humerous, No Country for Old Men is a powerful play on the traditional crime novel and a strident commentary on post-war United States.
The novel starts with Bell, then Chigurh, then Moss. Though the three main male characters never interact directly with each other, their actions mimic one another and mock one another as Bell hunts Chigurh and Chigurh hunts Moss. The three men are all war veterans, and each face the effects of war on humanity, both at the individual level and on a broader scale. After reluctantly receiving a Bronze Star for his service in WWII, Bell attempts to compensate for his perceived failure on the battlefield by becoming a lawman. Doubling with Bell’s stubborn peacekeeping and upholding the law is Chigurh, the psychopathic killer on Moss’s trail. Chigurh is also a veteran, but he reacts to the atrocities faced in the Vietnam War by becoming a methodical killer. Both men live by moral codes—Sheriff Bell’s code leads him to seek justice whereas Chigurh’s code causes him to lose an understanding of the value of human life.
To complicate the parallel between Chigurh and Bell, Llewelyn Moss steps into the novel with a shotgun and binoculars, looking for antelope and finding millions of dollars. Bell’s only chance to find Chigurh is through Moss, and Chigurh does not even consider the possible interference from the Sheriff in his pursuit of Moss. Where Chigurh is drawn to be morally strong and evil, and where Sheriff Bell is drawn to be the good hand of the law, Moss is ambiguous. He struggles with his desire for the money in relation to his life and the life of his wife. He is not above illegal actions if they will save his life, but he does not kill mercilessly like Chigurh. Moss is divided between the good and the bad, and as such, he is the only way for Bell to reach Chigurh. After Moss dies, however, Bell loses the opportunity and quits.
Llewelyn Moss is fated to die from his first appearance in the novel, even before he finds the briefcase full of money. In this early scene, while he is hunting antelope, he sees “crossing that ground was a large tailless dog, black in color” (McCarthy 11). Black dogs, or hellhounds, appear throughout European and Central American folklore in various forms. The hellhound, like the Barghest of Yorkshire, the Dip of Catalonia, and the Cadejo of southern Mexico, comes in the form of a large black dog, usually hairy. In some legends, the dogs attack those who see them; some drink the blood of their victims. To other cultures, merely seeing the hellhound is an omen of imminent death. They are almost universally considered emissaries of Satan. Moss’s encounter with the black dog in the beginning is an encounter with a hellhound, signaling his coming demise. The next dog that Moss comes across is dead, further reinforcing the omen over Moss’s life.
McCarthy uses other animal imagery throughout the book. Chigurh’s weapon of choice, a modified cattle slaughterer, reveals Chigurh’s belief that the people he kills should die a more ‘humane’ death while also showing that he views other humans as nothing but herd animals. The dehumanization of his victims allows Chigurh to separate emotionally from his victims. Sheriff Bell is often seen riding a horse, giving away his desire for tradition and stability. The Mexican drug cartel are referred to as wolves and lions in Spanish. Carrion birds hover throughout the novel.
If you have yet to do so, read No Country for Old Men. It’s a fast, darkly funny read that will leave you wanting more. And thanks to the Coen Brothers, you can get more with the extremely accurate movie.