No Country for Old Men

The author whose novel is made into a movie no doubt hopes that this will bring viewers to the book itself. In the case of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, this is a consummation devoutly to be wished. The novel is reminiscent of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, in which a Holocaust survivor, transplanted to New York, is confronted by an amoral mugger whose attitude causes Sammler to wonder if the worst is yet to be. So too Sheriff Bell finds the rationally irrational Chigurh, who calmly kills more people than the reader can count, beyond his comprehension.

Chigurh is a satanic figure who convinces Bell that he no longer understands the country for which he once fought. For thirty-six years, he has served as sheriff of a Texas county. He cannot take it anymore. The whole context of his life is called into question:

I think that if you were Satan and you were settin’ around tryin to think up something that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics. Maybe he did. I told that to somebody at breakfast the other mornin’ and they asked me if I believed in Satan. I said Well that ain’t the point. They said I know but do you? I had to think about that. I guess as a boy I did. Come the middle years my belief I reckon had waned somewhat. Now I’m startin’ to lean back the other way. He explains a lot of things that otherwise don’t have no explanation. Or not to me they don’t.

What the movie misses and the novel more or less obliquely provides is a Christian interpretation. A reader who runs as he reads may miss this in the novel but it is inescapably there. Bell is a Job-like figure whose complaint may seem to be merely a political one. He recalls a woman grousing about the right wing saying that all she wants is to be assured that her granddaughter will be able to have an abortion. Bell reassures her. She’ll be able to have one. And she’ll be able to put her grandma to death as well. How did we get to this point? Bell wonders if it wasn’t when we stopped saying Ma’am and Sir.

Call that an appeal to natural decency, to the common morality, but without the underpinning of belief in God, and Satan, it will inevitably be eroded. The drug wars along the border are the great metaphor of the novel, a metaphor that works because it is so realistically conveyed. Bell is more puzzled by the users than the suppliers. Why do so many people want to destroy themselves with drugs?

I have no idea whether this novel is typical of Cormac McCarthy’s work. If it it, his enormous popularity is baffling. On his web site he is described as “having been raised Roman Catholic,” which suggests that in his middle years, as with Sheriff Bell, his belief waned. Catholicism figures not at all in No Country For Old Men, save in a few obiter dicta.

Walker Percy, until his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, enjoyed a wide popularity. His believers were disarmingly mad, but the indirect point seemed to be, if this be madness, how is the outlook of non-believers to be described? When abortion and euthanasia, to say nothing of other once widely recognized sins, achieve the status of human rights, faith must be regarded as folly.

Much of our fiction moves comfortably within the parameters of liberal received opinion. One can see its roots already in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Exactly what her Gilded Age New Yorkers are innocent of is wonderfully ambiguous. European sophistication, a woman’s right to divorce, the alternative to Christian morality? Newland Archer, at the end of that novel, declines in old age a visit to the woman with whom he once intended to run away. The movie based on that novel portrays this decision as the stodgy conventionality of a thwarted man. Wharton knew better. Perhaps the alternative to the loss of innocence is preferable.

Many reviewers of McCarthy’s novel got the point after all. One called the novel “a race with the devil on a stage as big as Texas.” Another called it “a scary illumination of the oncoming darkness.” And another wrote, “Perhaps not since Satan vs. God has the battle been so Manichean.” Does belief in God and Satan make one a Manichean? No matter, the remark is an intimation of what this magnificent novel is about .

Apparently Cormac McCarthy is a recluse, refusing to speak save in his fiction. This is doubtless wise. There are few prizes and grants in the gift of the literary establishment that he has not received. But he is no spokesman for that establishment. To me he reads like what Kierkegaard called a spy in the service of the Absolute.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.