Books 21 Dec 2008 10:36 pm
In an article called “Stitching up bullet wounds in Mexico’s drug war,” Time magazine writer Ioan Grillo reports on how Red Cross volunteers put themselves in harm’s way to help people caught in the crossfire of Mexico’s drug wars. One of the medics interviewed said, “Some years ago, the gangsters would say, ‘It’s the Red Cross, leave them alone,’ but now they’re like, ‘We’ll hurt you too.’” That lack of common decency and respect — in essence, a new kind of criminal, part of a new culture — is at the center of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
The book is a briskly written thriller — part police procedural, part literary dissection on the state of our culture. I recently read The Road by the same author and liked it well enough to give this novel a try. I was surprised to find Old Men is written in the same sparse, experimental style as the other novel. I don’t know how I feel about that. In The Road, it worked to wonderful effect. Here, where the cast is larger than two primary characters, it sometimes became difficult to know who was talking, given the lack of traditional quotation marks in conversation and a more literary affectation than is strictly necessary for this type of story.
Then again, McCarthy is more ambitious than the average thriller writer. This novel, about a man named Moss who discovers a suitcase full of money at the site of a drug deal gone bad and the Texas/Mexico border sheriff who tries to find him before a really bad guy does, is an extended meditation on how society is going to hell in a hand basket, how the drug problem, as virulent as it is, is only a symptom of a deeper malaise. After all, as one character opines, there would be no market for illegal narcotics if there weren’t so many people willing to buy them.
McCarthy offers no easy answers. The conclusion is as troubling as the questions the story raises, and the indeterminate ending only underscores the point. If you’re looking for that satisfying moment when the good guys explain the crime and bring the bad guys to justice, look somewhere else. Another excellent work by McCarthy — not quite filled with traditional Christmas cheer, but a book to make one think long and hard on where we’ve been as a country and where we are going.