West Texas, 1980. Llewellyn Moss is out hunting when he comes across an abandoned car. Inside are two men, one dead and one very nearly so, and $2 million in cash. Unable to resist, Moss takes the money, the proceeds of a heroin deal, despite the danger he acknowledges he will now be in. As a precaution, he sends his wife away to her mother in El Paso.
On his trail comes the psychopathic Anton Chigurh to recover the money, killing anyone who gets in his way. These activities attract the attention of Sheriff Bell, shortly to retire and, in effect, the old man of the title, decent upright and honourable.
So far, so cliched, you might say, but a couple of factors set this novel apart from a run of the mill thriller. Firstly, Chigurh has to be one of the most chilling characters I've come across in serious fiction, ruthlessly efficient and singleminded. Secondly, the carefully constructed, lean prose describing a macho world is of a standard of which Papa Hemingway would be proud - this is no racy, pulp thriller. Although punctuated with explosions of violence, large parts are quietly reflective, especially those featuring Sherriff Bell, who is given a short monologue at the start of each part of the book - the rest is in the third person.
It was perhaps not best consumed on audiobook - given that the prose had been distilled into such a concentrated form, it required a lot of concentration to follow - but this is a powerful, elemental and well written novel. I will, however, read rather than listen to my next McCarthy book.
This was McCarthy's first published dramatic writing, though he had written a screenplay before this. A play in 5 acts which details the lives of the Telfair family over a period of three years.
At the centre of the play is Ben, son of Big Ben, and grandson of Papaw. There are actually 2 Bens present on stage the whole length of the play. And McCarthy who seems reluctant to give up his prose authorial control, provides quite detailed stage directions. He states that both Bens should look very similar but notably distinct. Not speaking at the same time for instance. So, we have Ben 1, who stands to the side of the main dramatic space, at a podium, and gives lengthy monologues mostly on the topics of masonry and his beloved grandfather. And we have Ben 2, who is the Ben of the onstage scenes.
The Telfairs (a telling name if ever there was one), are a middle-class black family - though race has very little to do with the scope of the tale. Ben, has recently given up University to take up stonemasonry with his grandfather, who he absolutely idolizes. It is the relationship between these two on which the whole play hangs, unfortunately at the expense of the other characters. While not much actually happens between Ben and Papaw, the peripheral characters have turbulent lives; Carlotta, a broken marriage and missing son, Big Ben, debt and isolation, and Soldier, a drug addiction. And these characters are fairly sketchy in comparison to Ben and Papaw.
It reminded me very much of Death of a Saleman; American family life, falling apart, a reliance on sons and of course, the illuminated Ben 1 occasionally interrupting. Papaw and his stonemasonry are the keystones of this family, Ben is primed to take over that position, but so rooted are they both in the craft and solidity of the trade that they forget to attend to the peripheral building of the family. There is more a sense of Ben picking up the pieces and repairing rather than building a solid foundation. And you get the sense that Papaw understood that about families and so invested heavily in Ben as a successor.
Very enjoyable, and I would love to see it performed.
Most bookshops here (NZ) carry only two McCarthy books: recent prize winner The Road and recently adapted for film No Country For Old Men. Having read those two, I was glad to see Unity Bookshop had plenty of his older titles in stock. Child of God, first published 35 years ago, is just as good as the other two books I have read.
Thankfully free of the grammatically annoying stylistic tics that mar his later works, this book actually has punctuation and justified paragraphs. Such an innocent world it was in 1973.
The plot is important, but no more so than McCarthy's wondrous prose style. If you haven't read anything by him before, the first few pages might need to be re-read to get you used to his style. It's well worth the effort.
If you've read any McCarthy before, you'll like this one. If you haven't, I'd say start with The Road. Either way, I don't think you'll be disappointed.
First, a word of warning. Sticklers for precise grammar will throw this book across the room in frustration at Cormac McCarthy's, um, individual approach to punctuation. There are no speech marks. Apostrophes are few and far between, hence cant, dont and oclock. Nations and nationalities are in lower case (america, english etc.) except Mexico. If you feel this would spoil your appreciation of a novel don't pick this one up. However, you'd be missing out on some of the most stunningly powerful writing in modern American literature. In fact, the minimalist apporach to punctuation complements McCarthy's stark style and subject matter.
Essentially, this is a rite of passage novel. The setting is the Texas and Mexico of the mid-20th century. When his grandfather dies, the teenaged John Grady Cole leaves his ranch with his friend Lacey Rawlins and heads for Mexico. On the way, they encounter Jimmy Blevins, riding a fine horse they suspect he's stolen. The friends warily allow him to ride with them, but the cavalier Blevins eventually gets the trio into trouble with the locals and, although Cole and Rawlins manage to escape to the protection of a local land owner and his family, trouble and tragedy follows them for the rest of the novel.
The Western is generally thought of as being a cinematic genre, but McCarthy has the skill to bring the West to life on the page, warts and all. His powers of description of the rural US and its inhabitants rival those of Steinbeck, his unflinching view of a brutal, male dominated world compares more than favourably with Hemingway. McCarthy is truly worthy of mention in the same breath as those two literary giants.
The tone is elegiac for a lifestyle that has disappeared, although it is one that can be unforgivingly tough; the novel generally moves at a stately pace but is punctuated with explosions of violence that might not be to everybody's taste with resulting injuries borne Stoically. Cole and Rawlins are well realised strong, silent types who can speak volumes just by spitting, although their dry, laconic dialogue is a delight too.
I'd urge admirers of McCarthy's Pulitzer winning "The Road" to seek this out: if anything, "All The Pretty Horses" is the better novel. I'm moving straight onto "The Crossing", the second part of the trilogy and wondering if McCarthy will be able to sustain such high quality.
This doesn't quite pip "Revolutionary Road" to the title of my read of the year for 2009, but it runs it a very close second.