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"Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction."
on July 19, 2005
Cormac McCarthy's first novel since completing the Border Trilogy in 1998 is a dramatic change of pace. Gone is the focus on the wild Texas plains and the encroachment of civilization. Gone are the lyrical descriptions of untamed nature and young love. Gone is the belief that love and hope have a fighting chance in life's mythic struggles. Instead, we have a much darker, more pessimistic vision, set in Texas in the 1980s, a microcosm in which drugs and violence have so changed "civilization" that the local sheriff believes "we're looking at something we really aint even seen before."
Forty-five-year-old Sheriff Ed Tom Bell must deal with the growing amorality affecting his small border town as a result of the drug trade. The old "rules" do not apply, and Bell faces a wave of violence involving at least ten murders. Running parallel with Bell's investigation of these murders is the story of Llewelyn Moss, a resident of Bell's town, who, while hunting in the countryside, has uncovered a bloody massacre and a truck containing a huge shipment of heroin. He has also discovered and stolen a case containing two million dollars of drug money, which results in his frantic run from hired hitmen. Hunting Moss is Anton Chigurh, a sociopathic cartel avenger, a Satan who will stop at nothing, the antithesis of the thoughtful and kindly Bell. A rival hitman named Wells is, in turn, stalking Chigurh.
By far McCarthy's most exciting and suspenseful novel in recent years, the story speeds along, the body count rising in shocking scenes of depravity. Bell's first person musings about crime, society, and the people around him break the tension periodically, allowing the reader to ponder the wider implications of the action and to see it as a symbolic struggle for man's soul between good and evil, love and hate, God and Satan. As the violence continues and Bell becomes more discouraged, he visits his elderly Uncle Ellis, a former deputy sheriff and war veteran, and as they talk about World War I and the Vietnam War, where they were willing to give their lives for a presumably winnable cause, the contrast between those battles and this battle on the home front is seen in broader and bleaker perspective.
McCarthy's desire to preserve traditional values, and his grim vision of the present and future, reflect a view of life that many readers will not share. The artistry the reader has seen in McCarthy's thematic development throughout the rest of the novel is sacrificed in the last forty pages, in which Bell's overt warnings and cautionary remarks about the future sound preachy. Still, the novel is breathtaking in its construction, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is one of McCarthy's best-drawn characters. (4.5 stars) n Mary Whipple