No Country for Old Men starts out in a thoroughly disjointed way. Multiple POVs, total lack of punctuation, dialogue rendered exactly as the characters speak it… the reader is utterly confused as to where the focus is, who the protagonist is, and what the story is about.
It could be about one Llewlyn Moss who stumbles upon a fortune while hunting antelope near the Rio Grande. A transaction between drug dealers has gone wrong, leaving a number of bodies, a huge stash of heroin, and a case full of cash. Moss takes the cash and runs, knowing fully well that his life is changed for ever.
Or then, it could be about Anton Chigurh, hired gun and cold-blooded killing machine. He is entrusted with the task of finding the money taken by Moss. On the way, Chigurh leaves a trail of dead bodies, sometimes philosophising to his victims.
Or it could be about Sheriff Bell, bent on doing his job of keeping law and order and protecting the citizens of his county to the best of his ability-even though most of the time, he fails.
The story moves at a roller-coaster pace. The scenes are short and mostly disjointed: the author sometimes leaves a major piece of the action behind the scenes. Characters come and go without any introduction. The sentences hit you like machine-gun fire.
If you stick with the novel, after some time, you get accustomed to the style; it loses its annoyance potential, and the real story starts coming through.
For this is not the story of Moss, or of Anton Chigurh; but of Sheriff Bell, and the country he is a symbol of. This is the country of Daniel Boone and Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kidd and Jesse James: the country of “The Man With No Name”, and a hundred Spaghetti Westerns we have seen and forgotten. This country is absolutely heartless but imbued with a certain terrible beauty. This country sends forth its sons to die in Vietnam and Iraq.
It is, indeed, not a country for old men.
Anton Chigurh is a masterly creation: one of the most frightening villains I have come across, because he is not “evil” in the traditional sense. Chigurh is a philosopher, a believer in the karma of what he is doing, the karma which is unstoppable and which will find you out no matter what. The scenes of him philosophising with Carson Wells and Carla Jean before he shoots them are terrifying for the lack of emotion in them. It is also ironical that an out-of-control car driven by three junkies, an entirely chance event, ultimately proves to be his undoing.
But as I said earlier, this is the story of Sheriff Bell, who is atoning for a single act of cowardice during the second world war (rather like Lord Jim). We get to know this only towards the very end, after the whole affair of Moss and Chigurh is over and done with: then the story suddenly falls into focus, and the philosophical interludes of the sheriff interspersed throughout the novel with the main narrative starts to make perfect sense. The killers, the chase and the shootouts are all just window dressing for the story of this one man as he tries to make sense of the conundrum of the meaning of life. And he does find his answer, though maybe not the one he expected.
The image of this man, standing alone in the midst of the desert, shoulders slumped in defeat against an increasingly violent and unjust world, is a touching one: and somehow heartening. Because we know that he is the real spirit of the desert, the gunslinger of American myth who rides off into the sunset after taking care of the baddies. And because we know that finally at the end of the trail, his dad will be waiting for him with the fire burning in the dark as he saw in his dream.
Ride on, Sheriff Bell.