In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy simultaneously strips down the American crime novel and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as bloodily contemporary as this morning’s headlines.
I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didnt have to go but I did. I sure didnt want to. He’d killed a fourteen year old girl and I can tell you right now I never did have no great desire to visit with him let alone go to his execution but I done it. The papers said it was a crime of passion and he told me there wasnt no passion to it. He’d been datin this girl, young as she was. He was nineteen. And he told me that he had been plannin to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was goin to hell. Told it to me out of his own mouth. I dont know what to make of that. I surely dont. I thought I’d never seen a person like that and it got me to wonderin if maybe he was some new kind. I watched them strap him into the seat and shut the door. He might of looked a bit nervous about it but that was about all. I really believe that he knew he was goin to be in hell in fifteen minutes. I believe that. And I’ve thought about that a lot. He was not hard to talk to. Called me Sheriff. But I didnt know what to say to him. What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul? Why would you say anything? I’ve thought about it a good deal. But he wasnt nothin compared to what was comin down the pike.
They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I dont know what them eyes was the windows to and I guess I’d as soon not know. But there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it and that’s where this is goin. It has done brought me to a place in my life I would not of thought I’d of come to. Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again. I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they’ll know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that. I think now that maybe I never would.
The deputy left Chigurh standing in the corner of the office with his hands cuffed behind him while he sat in the swivelchair and took off his hat and put his feet up and called Lamar on the mobile.
Just walked in the door. Sheriff he had some sort of thing on him like one of them oxygen tanks for emphysema or whatever. Then he had a hose that run down the inside of his sleeve and went to one of them stunguns like they use at the slaughterhouse. Yessir. Well that’s what it looks like. You can see it when you get in. Yessir. I got it covered. Yessir.
When he stood up out of the chair he swung the keys off his belt and opened the locked desk drawer to get the keys to the jail. He was slightly bent over when Chigurh squatted and scooted his manacled hands beneath him to the back of his knees. In the same motion he sat and rocked backward and passed the chain under his feet and then stood instantly and effortlessly. If it looked like a thing he’d practiced many times it was. He dropped his cuffed hands over the deputy’s head and leaped into the air and slammed both knees against the back of the deputy’s neck and hauled back on the chain.
They went to the floor. The deputy was trying to get his hands inside the chain but he could not. Chigurh lay there pulling back on the bracelets with his knees between his arms and his face averted. The deputy was flailing wildly and he’d begun to walk sideways over the floor in a circle, kicking over the wastebasket, kicking the chair across the room. He kicked shut the door and he wrapped the throwrug in a wad about them. He was gurgling and bleeding from the mouth. He was strangling on his own blood. Chigurh only hauled the harder. The nickelplated cuffs bit to the bone. The deputy’s right carotid artery burst and a jet of blood shot across the room and hit the wall and ran down it. The deputy’s legs slowed and then stopped. He lay jerking. Then he stopped moving altogether. Chigurh lay breathing quietly, holding him. When he got up he took the keys from the deputy’s belt and released himself and put the deputy’s revolver in the waistband of his trousers and went into the bathroom.
He ran cold water over his wrists until they stopped bleeding and he tore strips from a handtowel with his teeth and wrapped his wrists and went back into the office. He sat on the desk and fastened the toweling with tape from a dispenser, studying the dead man gaping up from the floor. When he was done he got the deputy’s wallet out of his pocket and took the money and put it in the pocket of his shirt and dropped the wallet to the floor. Then he picked up his airtank and the stungun and walked out the door and got into the deputy’s car and started the engine and backed around and pulled out and headed up the road.
On the interstate he picked out a late model Ford sedan with a single driver and turned on the lights and hit the siren briefly. The car pulled onto the shoulder. Chigurh pulled in behind him and shut off the engine and slung the tank across his shoulder and stepped out. The man was watching him in the rearview mirror as he walked up.
What’s the problem, officer? he said.
Sir would you mind stepping out of the vehicle?
The man opened the door and stepped out. What’s this about? he said.
Would you step away from the vehicle please.
The man stepped away from the vehicle. Chigurh could see the doubt come into his eyes at this bloodstained figure before him but it came too late. He placed his hand on the man’s head like a faith healer. The pneumatic hiss and click of the plunger sounded like a door closing. The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see. Chigurh wiped his hand with his handkerchief. I just didnt want you to get blood on the car, he said.
Moss sat with the heels of his boots dug into the volcanic gravel of the ridge and glassed the desert below him with a pair of twelve power german binoculars. His hat pushed back on his head. Elbows propped on his knees. The rifle strapped over his shoulder with a harnessleather sling was a heavybarreled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut. It carried a Unertl telescopic sight of the same power as the binoculars. The antelope were a little under a mile away. The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself. He lowered the binoculars and sat studying the land. Far to the south the raw mountains of Mexico. The breaks of the river. To the west the baked terracotta terrain of the run- ning borderlands. He spat dryly and wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his cotton workshirt.
The rifle would shoot half minute of angle groups. Five inch groups at one thousand yards. The spot he’d picked to shoot from lay just below a long talus of lava scree and it would put him well within that distance. Except that it would take the better part of an hour to get there and the antelope were grazing away from him. The best he could say about any of it was that there was no wind.
When he got to the foot of the talus he raised himself slowly and looked for the antelope. They’d not moved far from where he last saw them but the shot was still a good seven hundred yards. He studied the animals through the binoculars. In the compressed air motes and heat distortion. A low haze of shimmering dust and pollen. There was no other cover and there wasnt going to be any other shot.
He wallowed down in the scree and pulled off one boot and laid it over the rocks and lowered the forearm of the rifle down into the leather and pushed off the safety with his thumb and sighted through the scope.
They stood with their heads up, all of them, looking at him.
Damn, he whispered. The sun was behind him so they couldnt very well have seen light reflect off the glass of the scope. They had just flat seen him.
The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot toward him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him. He knew the exact drop of the bullet in hundred yard increments. It was the distance that was uncertain. He laid his finger in the curve of the trigger. The boar’s tooth he wore on a gold chain spooled onto the rocks inside his elbow.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from No Country for Old Men (Movie Tie In Edition) by Cormac McCarthy. Copyright © 2005 by Cormac McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Book
"Profoundly disturbing and gorgeously rendered. . . . The most accessible of all his works."
—The Washington Post
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of No Country for Old Men, the first novel by acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy since the completion of his award-winning and bestselling Border Trilogy.
About the Guide
When Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon a grisly murder scene in the desert while hunting antelope near the Rio Grande river, he finds himself at a crossroads. Walk away and return to his job as a welder or take the $2 million dollars left there—after a heroin deal went horribly wrong—and begin a life on the run. Looking at the suitcase full of cash, he says to himself: "You have to take this seriously. . . . You cant treat it like luck" [p. 23].
Whether luck or fate, it is definitely serious. The money belongs to men who will stop at nothing to get it back, as Llewellyn very quickly learns. When he returns to the scene of the crime later that night, he gets shot at, wounded, and sent running for his life. Moss is pursued by Mexican drug traffickers, an ex-Special Forces officer, and by a relentless, cold-blooded killer. Sheriff Bell tries to find and protect Moss and his young wife but as the violence escalates, he realizes he is up against forces he has never seen before and which are brutal beyond his imagining. He tells his deputy: "I aint sure we've seen these people before. Their kind. I dont know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they'd have to build a annex on to hell" [p. 79]. Moss, who was a sniper in Vietnam, proves a worthy adversary, as tenacious and resourceful as the men who are after him. And in prose as spare and tough as the desert landscape in which his story is set, Cormac McCarthy follows these characters as they move toward an inevitable and violent convergence. Along the way, it is the voice of Sheriff Bell, the moral center of the book, that puts this desperate chase in a larger context of what he sees as a breakdown in the social order of apocalyptic proportions. Sheriff Bell's reflections on the changing world around him, on his values, his family, and his own past give the novel its distinctive richness and moral weight.
As fast-paced as any thriller, No Country for Old Men offers readers a disturbing look into the vortex created by drugs and violence in America and a moving meditation on good and evil, freedom and fate, time and change.
About the Author
Cormac McCarthy is the author of eight previous novels, including Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His most recent novel, The Road, received the Pulitzer Prize.
1. The title of the novel comes from William Butler Yeats's poem "Sailing to Byzantium": "That is no country for old men, the young / In one another's arms, birds in the trees, /—Those dying generations—at their song." The poem also contains the lines: "An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, / Unless soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress." Why has McCarthy chosen a line from Yeats' poem for his title? In what ways is No Country for Old Men about aging? Does Sheriff Bell experience any kind of spiritual rejuvenation as he ages?
2. McCarthy has a distinctive prose style—pared down, direct, colloquial—and he relies on terse, clipped dialogue rather than narrative exposition to move his story along. Why is this style so powerful and so well-suited to the story he tells in No Country for Old Men?
3. Early in the novel, after Bell surveys the carnage in the desert, he tells Lamar: "I just have this feelin we're looking at something we really aint never even seen before" [p. 46]. In what way is the violence Sheriff Bell encounters different than what has come before? Is Anton Chigurh a new kind of killer? Is he a "true and living prophet of destruction," [p. 4] as Bell thinks? In what ways does he challenge Bell's worldview and values?
4. After Llewelyn finds the money and comes home, he decides to go back to the scene of the crime. He tells his wife: "I'm fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I'm goin anways" [p. 24]. Why does he go back, even though he knows it is a foolish and dangerous thing to do? What are the consequences of this decision?
5. When asked about the rise in crime in his county, Bell says that "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight" [p. 304]. Is he right about this? Why would deteriorating manners signal a larger social chaos?
6. How can Anton Chigurh's behavior be explained? What motivates him to kill so methodically and heartlessly? How does he regard the people he kills?
7. Llewellyn tells the young woman he picks up hitchhiking: "Things happen to you they happen. They don't ask first. They dont require your permission" [p. 220]. Have things simply happened to Llewellyn or does he play a more active role in his fate? Does his life in fact seem fated?
8. What motivates Sheriff Bell? Why does he feel so protective of Llewellyn and his wife? In what ways does Sheriff Bell's past, particularly his war experience, affect his actions in the present?
9. McCarthy will often tell the reader that one of his characters is "thinking things over" without revealing what the character is thinking about [see p. 107]. Most novelists describe in great detail what their characters are thinking and feeling. Why does McCarthy choose not to do this? What does he gain by leaving such information out?
10. Sheriff Bell says, "The stories gets passed on and the truth gets passed over. . . . Which I reckon some would take as meanin the truth cant compete. But I don't believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet. . . . You cant corrupt it any more than you can salt salt" [p. 123]. What incorruptible truths emerge from the story that McCarthy tells in No Country for Old Men?
11. In the italicized sections of the novel, Sheriff Bell reflects on what he feels is the moral decline and growing violence of the world around him. What is the moral code that Bell lives by? What are his strongest beliefs? How has he acquired these beliefs?
12. Jeffery Lent, writing in The Washington Post Book World, described No Country for Old Men as "profoundly disturbing" ["Blood Money," The Washington Post Book World, July 17, 2005]. What is it about the story that McCarthy tells and the way he tells it that is so unsettling?
13. Near the end of the novel, Bell says: "I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I dont care what shape it takes" [p. 295]. What kind of future is Bell imagining? Why does he think we are not ready for it? How can No Country for Old Men be understood as an apocalyptic novel?
James Lee Burke, Crusader's Cross; William Faulkner, Light in August; Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls; Larry McMurtry, Dead Man's Walk; Tim O'Brien, Going After Cacciato; Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood; Sam Shepard, True West.