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No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

The wildest West of all

The perp is called Anton Chigurh (pronounced Sugar by some). As McCarthy's words make clear, he is no simple butcher, just as this book is no simple thriller. He is as near to being the Angel of Death as makes no difference. But where is his Boss to say, "Enough is enough"?

And it is not only the Almighty who has lost his chops. Late in the book, a hit man of the old school, whose name (Carson Wells) is an amalgam of Western hero (Kit Carson) and icon (Wells Fargo), takes on the task of eliminating Chigurh, with disarming confidence. He doesn't last five minutes.

Chigurh is a hunter sans pareil, on a par with the wolf. In an earlier novel (The Crossing), an ancient Mexican claims that the wolf "knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there". Chigurh is a new breed and an exception to that rule; he knows what the wolf knows.

As such, he terrifies old Sheriff Bell, the conscientious voice who tells us that to stand against Chigurh would require a man to put his own soul "at hazard". The man we are rooting for, the man we hope will be Chigurh's nemesis, is also a hunter. His name is Llewlyn Moss. While stalking antelope in the sun-browned wilderness on the American side of the Rio Grande, he happens upon a drug deal gone south. There are bodies everywhere, including one still minding a case full of high-denomination banknotes. Moss removes it and plans to retire on the proceeds with his young wife.

Experience tells us that such plans are never as simple as they seem. In this case there's a survivor of the shoot-out. Moss first abandons him, then returns with succour. Big mistake. Moss finds the man coup de grâce-d, and himself discovered - by Chigurh, worse luck. Thus the hunter becomes the hunted.

Sheriff Bell's slow-witted deputy comments: "It must of sounded like Vietnam out here." Several times, scenes of carnage are described as "warzones". We also learn that before Moss hunted game he hunted men, having been a sniper over there. Something is clearly afoot.

In No Country for Old Men, Mexicans are Satan's little helpers, bringing drugs and deadly danger across the border. They are anonymous merchants of evil and arbitrary endings. When Moss is wounded in a skirmish with Chigurh, a Mexican hospital does the repairs. But the majority of Mexicans in this book are nameless, faceless and best avoided. They are the VietCong de nos jours.

Mexicans had more varied roles in The Crossing. Some are killers, but others are the repository of ancient wisdom. One of the latter explains that those who think death's elections "inscrutable" are wrong, for "every act invites the act which follows and to the extent that men put one foot before the other they are accomplices in their own deaths". Men "will seek their deaths in the face of every obstacle". It is a philosophy that Chigurh echoes as he goes about his bloody business.

Meanwhile, his quarry criss-crosses the turnpike and highways between Eagle Pass and El Paso, his mind fixed upon the man who has reason to pursue him. A showdown seems inevitable. I tracked his journey with a map of Texas, but it didn't help to see what was "comin' down the pike". All I can advise is that both protagonist and reader be prepared for the unexpected. Deaths may be determined, but they are not necessarily as expected. Likewise, McCarthy's books are never prescriptive. His prose has become more spare, but he still knows how to create and destroy with a fiat.

Clive Sinclair's latest novel is 'Meet the Wife' (Picador)