In his first novel in seven years, National Book Award-winner Cormac McCarthy returns to the southwest border country, setting for his best-selling...

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“No Country for Old Men”
by Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 306 pp., $24.95

In his first novel in seven years, National Book Award-winner Cormac McCarthy returns to the southwest border country, setting for his best-selling “Border Trilogy.” Those novels won critical acclaim for the author’s deft treatment of grand themes: love, loss and exile, and his poetic evocation of a stark and beautiful landscape.

Unfortunately, McCarthy’s new novel, “No Country for Old Men,” swings back to the harsher vision of his 1985 “Blood Meridian,” a book made difficult by its detachment from its characters and its preoccupation with violence and brutality.

“No Country for Old Men” is set during the ruthless cross-border drug wars of the early 1980s. It opens with a cold-blooded murder and moves quickly to another. By page 60, no fewer than nine corpses have piled up, with the promise of more to come. The small-town Texas sheriffs in whose jurisdictions this mayhem unfolds are clearly out of their element. The perpetrators are beyond moral reach. And the gulf between these characters is so deep, they seem to inhabit separate novels.

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Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope in the west Texas border country when he comes upon the scene of a recent drug shootout. He sidesteps the bullet-ridden vehicles, heroin and carnage, but makes off with some high-powered weapons and a bag containing $2.4 million. Back at the trailer, he sends his young wife off to stay with her mother in Odessa and hits the road. Moss is a capable guy, a former sniper in Vietnam, and he thinks he can take care of himself.

Anton Chigurh is a cold and calculating über-killer. He is a dangerous freelancer in the drug wars who takes no prisoners. What follows is a dispassionate and brutally efficient killing spree, vividly told, as Chigurh, armed with a slaughterhouse stun gun, systematically eliminates his competitors and homes in relentlessly on his target. Chigurh has something of the Hollywood monster about him, brilliant, calculating, unstoppable. He treats himself for gunshot wounds with items purchased from a veterinary supply house and drugs pilfered from a pharmacy he sets ablaze by igniting a car’s gas tank. McCarthy walks us through Chigurh’s errands with painstaking attention to detail.

Oddly, these exploits are interspersed with the folksy first-person reminiscences of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Sheriff Bell is a decent man, a decorated World War II veteran, devoted husband and lifetime law-enforcement officer. But Bell is a man from another time, Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” Like the good cowboys of McCarthy’s earlier books, he hearkens from a West where a sense of moral order prevailed. That time, if it ever existed, has clearly passed.

“I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees,” muses Bell, “what you would probably come up with is narcotics.” He speculates that nothing short of the second coming of Christ can put a stop to drug-trade violence.

McCarthy is an excellent writer, frequently compared to Hemingway for his storytelling prowess, his concise action and honed dialogue. But he tends to bog down on the philosophical end.

In several of his earlier books, a central character steps out of the action for heart-to-heart counsel with a wise old elder: John Grady Cole and the judge in “All the Pretty Horses,” Billy Parham and the old Mexican man in “Cities of the Plain.”

In this book, Sheriff Bell seeks out his aged uncle, a hard-bitten retired sheriff in a wheelchair. Like McCarthy’s other stand-in wisemen, the old lawman delivers the stock advice: “you ought to ease up on yourself.”

When a young reporter asks Sheriff Bell how he let crime get so out-of-hand in his county, he offers this chestnut: “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.”

That’s pretty thin broth for a serious writer. At the end of a bloodbath like this, one might expect a deeper insight into, say, the nature of evil. McCarthy takes his readers on a chef’s tour of hell, then chides them for neglecting to wipe their feet at the door.