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Beyond good and evil

Eric Miles Williamson is an editor of American Book Review and the author of the novels "East Bay Grease" and the forthcoming "Two-Up."

The publication of “No Country for Old Men,” Cormac McCarthy’s first novel in seven years, is an event: Many believe McCarthy to be America’s greatest living author, if not our greatest novelist since Faulkner and Hemingway. Academics hold McCarthy conferences and seminars, and his novels appear regularly on university syllabuses. First editions of his first five novels sell for thousands of dollars to collectors and devotees.

McCarthy’s fame, however, is a relatively recent development, brought on by his 1992 bestseller, “All the Pretty Horses,” winner of both the National Book Critics Circle and the National Book awards. When McCarthy was writing his greatest books -- “Child of God,” “Suttree” and “Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West” -- the only people paying attention were other writers. McCarthy’s first five books sold fewer than 15,000 copies combined when they were first published.

The finest of McCarthy’s novels is “Blood Meridian,” published in 1985, his first about the Texas-Mexico border (“All the Pretty Horses” would also take place there). Set in the mid-1800s, “Blood Meridian” is the story of a band of mercenaries paid by the Mexican government to purge the region of Apaches. The Mexican government pays $100 per Apache scalp, and McCarthy spares the reader none of the gory details of the gang’s slaughters. For some readers, there’s not a more violent and graphic book in American literature.

But “Blood Meridian” is more than a mere bloodbath. The novel is a harrowing meditation on the violent nature of man. The main character, Judge Holden, is a learned, highly articulate man whose quest, it would seem, is to be God. According to him, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent” and “The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos.” As blood oozes from the slain, Judge Holden rarely misses the opportunity to provide his metaphysical philosophy for the enlightenment of his crew of thugs. Through these commentaries we understand that McCarthy is cautioning us about the possibility of confrontation with an existence that is, in Nietzschean terms, beyond good and evil.

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Having completed his border trilogy (“All the Pretty Horses,” “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain”), McCarthy returns to the problem of evil in “No Country for Old Men.” But whereas “Blood Meridian” is set in the lawless West of the 19th century, “No Country for Old Men” is set in modern times, in 1980. One would like to think we have become more civilized over the course of 130 years. According to McCarthy, we have not. In fact, we have gotten worse.

On the surface, “No Country for Old Men” is just another gangster story, McCarthy’s response to Faulkner’s bootlegging novel, “Sanctuary.” The novel opens with a monologue spoken by Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff whose recurring speeches of despair over the decay of America’s dignity provide the disheartened moral core of the book. Near the end of the novel, when talking to a reporter who asks why crime has gotten so out of hand in his county, Bell says, “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.”

Bell is the unfortunate sheriff of a border county that is host to a heroin deal gone bad, with bodies strewn about the desert and pickup trucks riddled with bullet holes. While out hunting antelope, Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet and sharpshooter, comes across the massacre, finds the heroin and the cash -- $2.4 million. Moss takes the money and goes home.

Except he’s made a mistake. One of those slain wasn’t quite dead yet, and he’d asked Moss for water when Moss was rummaging around the site. Moss’ compassion gets the better of him -- a serious error in the universe McCarthy portrays -- and he returns to the murder scene with a water jug. The dying man, however, is now dead, a fresh shot through the head. There’s another party involved, and Moss becomes a hunted man.

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His pursuers are Carson Wells and Anton Chigurh, both former special ops soldiers who are now hired guns. Wells is an assassin for hire, a typical steely bad guy who knows what he’s doing. Chigurh might appear to be merely the invincible bad-guy caricature who just won’t die, no matter how many times he’s seemingly killed. For readers familiar with “Blood Meridian,” though, Chigurh represents something much more harrowing. He is the logical consequence of the thinking of “Blood Meridian’s” Judge Holden, the next step in America’s moral evolution. Chigurh’s moral code is based on a deterministic view of fate. In his mind, whatever he does is predetermined. What he does most is kill. What he does best is survive. “Blood Meridian” is a warning. “No Country for Old Men” tells us that such warnings no longer matter: The end is at hand.

The body count in “No Country for Old Men” is high, but the renderings of death are muted, truncated, abrupt. We do not find the gore heightened as it is in “Blood Meridian.” Here, the murders are presented as mere facts. Chigurh kills, in Wells’ words, “Like you might go out and get a paper or something.” In a godless world devoid of metaphysical consequences, killing a human being is akin to squashing a cockroach.

Aside from Sheriff Bell, who is more a conscience than a character, none of these figures can rightfully be called the protagonist, which is probably McCarthy’s intention. Without a universal moral code, humanity is reduced to a nebulous relativism that can make a right of any wrong, a wrong of any right and can justify any action with ease.

With no definitions of good or evil, no one gets to be the good guy in “No Country for Old Men.” Sheriff Bell retires after the action of the novel has concluded -- the world has gone too far astray for him to feel there’s anything he can do to help.

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Redemption, honor, dignity, hope: McCarthy portrays these notions as the foolish nostalgia of an old and dying generation. What the future holds for us in his vision is brute violence, the rule of shameless force, a world in which power, not conscience, is the only commodity of value. Governments around the globe seem to be proving McCarthy right. Let’s hope that, in the end, he won’t be. *

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A violent universe

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Other McCarthy titles exploring humanity’s dark side:

“Outer Dark” (1968)

A brother and sister are pursued by mysterious strangers as they search for their child in the Appalachian Mountains.

“Child of God” (1974)

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A recluse and murderer hides in underground caves until his depraved acts catch the attention of the local community.

“Suttree” (1979)

Cornelius Suttree abandons his wealthy family to live among the outcasts and criminals camped on the banks of the Tennessee River.

“Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West” (1985)

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The vicious Glanton Gang is hired to clear Apaches from the Texas-Mexico border in the 1840s.


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