It's been seven years since Cormac McCarthy published a novel, and from the evidence of No Country For Old Men, he spent at least part of it reading Elmore Leonard. Set along the Texas borderlands of 1980, No Country is a gripping thriller about deals gone wrong, innocent men on the run, and a ruthless killer with a commitment to duty that neatly overlaps with an equally strong commitment to sadism. It's told in McCarthy's unmistakable dry style, even the chapter-ending cliffhangers that demand readers keep the pages turning. Then, without warning, it turns into the much sadder, more pensive book that the thriller twists have been setting up all along. It's a strange bait-and-switch of a novel, a first-class airport read that turns into a lyrical, cranky elegy for a vanished America. One aspect should outweigh the other, but McCarthy somehow finds a balance and holds it to the bitter end.
The novel's focus shifts between three men, but initially lingers most often on Llewelyn Moss, a welder and Vietnam veteran who happens upon a botched drug deal while hunting antelope. Investigating, he finds one barely living survivor and a briefcase containing over two million dollars. Not immune to the pull of money—his post-Army career hasn't taken him much farther than the local trailer park—he grabs the cash, tells his wife to lie low, then heads back to help the wounded man. Compassion turns out to be a tactical error, and soon he's on the run from Anton Chigurh, a killer with a fondness for lateral thinking and slaughterhouse implements. Also tailing Moss: Sheriff Bell, a county lawman whose almost paternal concern for his charges extends to fugitives and upright citizens alike.
McCarthy makes Moss and Chigurh's cat-and-mouse game a gripping struggle between the clever and the pitiless. Moss knows how to live by his wits, and he has the love of his wife to keep him going. He also has all that money, which, in the novel's terms, muddies the waters. Late in the book, Sheriff Bell and a prosecutor both admit (only one truthfully) that they don't know who Mammon is. McCarthy knows, of course, and part of what makes Chigurh such a chilling antagonist is that by McCarthy's reckoning, he seems like the right man for the times—an uncaring beast with no concern for anyone else. But Bell has the last word, and while his summoning up of a more decent, caring time has a whiff of cranky-old-man-ism to it, it still feels earned. He's spent a life fighting on one frontline or another, and his sense of loss feels as big as the bloody land he's sworn to protect.