No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

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Chapters often begin with "good ol' boy" wisdom from Ed Tom Bell, the disillusioned Sheriff assigned to Moss's case. These intersperse with a potboiler pared down from the stylistic grandeur of the Border Trilogy - a style more warzone reportage than Joycean prose. Voices compete with each other. There is no single, imposed account.

"I think the truth is always simple," says Bell. "It has pretty much got to be." But this is 1980, and a generation has had to live with the consequences of Vietnam. The country's story has been fractured, and truth is a hard customer to please. "It's a mess," says one deputy to the Sheriff. "If it aint," replies Bell, "it'll do till a mess gets here."

So much for Bell's loss of faith. The tragedy surrounds Moss. Like Othello, he recognises the high point of his fortune. For our hero's "You live to be a hundred... there wont be another day like this one" read the Moor's "If it were now to die, 'twere now to be most happy." And Moss knows it too: "As soon as he said it he was sorry."

The instrument of Moss's tragedy is Anton Chigurgh, pronounced 'sugar', a psychopath set on recovering Moss's briefcase money. Chigurgh's method of termination is a cattle gun. This execution is typical: "He placed his hand on the man's head like a faith healer. The pneumatic hiss and click of the plunger sounded like a door closing. The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled."

But our villain, like the Judge from Blood Meridian and Eduardo in Cities of the Plain, is a philosopher too. And, just as in Cities of the Plain, where a pre-determined universe battles against human free will ("that we may imagine alternate histories means nothing at all") so Chigurgh is the instrument of a determined, bloody world.

With Chigurgh in the world, we know, as well as Moss does, that Moss is doomed. We know it from the first moment he lays his hands on the briefcase. So why is his story so painful? Perhaps it is precisely because McCarthy lays his cards so openly before us. Chigurgh is, like McCarthy, an author, and a bleak one at that.

But McCarthy can be tender, too, and that saves our interest. There lives the dearest freshness deep down things. An example: with the end of the adventure in sight, Moss picks up a teenage girl on the road. She is attracted to him, but Moss is married. They have this conversation over a last, split can of beer:

"You aint changed your mind have you?

About what?

You know about what.

I dont change my mind. I like to get it right the first time.

He rose and started up the walkway. She stood at the door. I'll tell you somethin I heard in a movie one time, she said.

He stopped and turned. What's that?

There's a lot of good salesmen around and you might buy somethin yet.

Well darlin you're just a little late. Cause I done bought. And I think I'll stick with what I got."

Writing this rich should be cherished. And, while No Country For Old Men lacks the epic scope of McCarthy's greatest novels - Suttree, Blood Meridian and The Crossing - it is a severed head and shoulders over anything else written in America this year.