Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"He's a Psychopathic Killer, but So What?": Folklore and Morality in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"He's a Psychopathic Killer, but So What?": Folklore and Morality in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men

Article excerpt

Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men (2005) tells the story of a sheriff struggling along in the bloody wake of a psychopathic murderer. This novel is narrated primarily in the omniscient third-person style that typifies McCarthy's darkest novels like Blood Meridian (1986), but, unlike Blood Meridian, the third-person narrative voice in No Country for Old Men is stripped of McCarthy's characteristic convoluted and archaic diction. As many of the novel's earliest reviewers pointed out, its characters resemble iconic caricatures of evil portrayed in earlier novels, like Blood Meridian's Judge Holden. But No Country for Old Men's syntactic landscape is shorn of the rich, Faulkner-esque language typical of these earlier works, leaving the characters flat and two-dimensional, so much so that James Wood calls the novel's villain, Anton Chigurh, a "hollowed" representation in a "morally empty book" (92). At one point, a minor character, Wells, describes Chigurh as "a psychopathic killer," but he shrugs at the description, adding, "but so what? There's plenty of them around" (NCFOM 141). The inexplicable evil of Chigurh and the equally inexplicable moral code practiced by Sheriff Bell may merely underscore the pointlessness of any discussion of morality, as Wells seems to believe. In this respect, the novel may have much in common with the nihilistic world of Blood Meridian. Bell's first-person narrative frames, however, draw explicit, meta-textual attention to the purpose of narration, suggesting that something more than nihilism infuses this novel's dark cosmos. Bell is not the novel's narrator, and his prophetic and visionary monologues frame the tale while remaining ambiguously separate from it. The framing device of the narrative sections, along with the stripped prose of the main narrative and the two-dimensional characters in fact foreground the nature and purpose of story-telling. In particular, this novel explores the relationship between story-telling and morality by evoking archaic tropes and modes of narration more typically associated with the folktale.

Released in July of 2005, No Country for Old Men was McCarthy's first novel since Cities of the Plain came out in 1998. The novel, reflective, perhaps, of the author's growing fame, met with polarized responses. For example, William J. Cobb's review gushes praise, claiming that McCarthy "is nothing less than our greatest living writer, and [No Country for Old Men] is a novel that must be read and remembered" (17). Wood's review in The New Yorker, on the other hand, describes the novel as "an unimportant, stripped-down thriller" that aggravates McCarthy's already-tenuous literary status (88). Edward St. John's review for the Library Journal lacerates the novel, claiming that in it "McCarthy stumbles headlong into self-parody" (59), while Walter Kirn, after a rather positive review, concludes that "At times, the whole novel borders on caricature" (9). No Country for Old Men reads like a pulp thriller and is certainly an unusual--even unique--addition to McCarthy's novels. However, No Country for Old Men's meta-textual attention to narrative is not at all unique in his larger corpus. In a conversation with the Coen brothers regarding the process of translating the novel into film, McCarthy cites a comment David Mamet once made regarding script-writing. Mamet, McCarthy claims, "says that the ideal venue for a playwright is to write radio plays, because then you have nothing, just--this is what somebody said. That's it. You have nothing to fall back on" (Grossman 63). Like Mamet, McCarthy seems to admire the challenge of minimalist writing, writing that strips away trappings to reveal the naked skeleton of the art form. If an ideal play is one that relies solely on the sounds of voices, then No Country for Old Men may be close to McCarthy's ideal of a novel--one that reduces narrative to the bare depiction of events, coupled with ambiguously-related snippets of prophetic interpretation. …

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