Slow Death in the West

John Sengstock, Staff Writer

Ever wonder why your conservative grandfather can never understand your liberal ideals and values or vice versa? Look at the phrase: “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s a prominent one used to highlight the fact that older people tend to retain their values for whatever life throws at them as opposed to thinking outside of the box and finding new answers to things they never knew. For some people, that’s just a way of life. It can also act as a detriment at the same time, keeping someone locked in a biased and sheltered worldview, unable to avoid clear-cut situations because they did the “right” thing; after all, “they know best.” The world is always twisting and turning to adapt to whatever new things humans throw at it and some people are just stuck in their own mental loop until they die. These are the primary topics explored in Cormac McCarthy’s gritty tour de force: No Country for Old Men

The story takes place in the stark Tex-Mex area, roughly around 1978-80 and focuses on three main characters: a Vietnam War veteran (Llewelyn Moss), an aging small-town cop (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), and a nihilistic serial killer with a bolt pistol (Anton Chigurh). Each of them is guilty of contributing something to their own long-runs of misfortune as well as unknowingly devising more confusion and misery en route to others around them. One of these motives is explained at the beginning of each chapter by Ed Tom Bell, who sees the world as “being in decline” and that it can only be “saved” by a higher power (i.e. Christ). On the flipside, Anton Chigurh sees the world from a much more nihilistic perspective: the world has always been a terrible, slowly degrading place and no one can do anything to “save” it. Llewelyn, however, doesn’t really show any signs of belief or disbelief and just goes along with his instincts – the exact thing that causes himself trouble.  This is used as an example for both Bell’s and Chigurh’s perspectives.

By answering to neither Bell’s nor Chigurh’s propositions, McCarthy gives the novel an eerie and perplexing tone, demonstrating that there isn’t a clear line that distinguishes where and how corruption and evil connect with each other. Of course, these aren’t the only two things the novel has going for itself.  The other symbols in the novel help to illustrate the bleak and volatile landscape, including coins (the chance of life and death as an “even” gamble), a boar tusk (symbol of the hunter and the hunted), and Chigurh’s bolt pistol (a symbol of his elevated status as a prophet of destruction). There’s still more to the book, but then I’d be spoiling it. If you want a slow-paced and earnest neo-Western read that leaves you with feelings of loathing and unfulfillment, I highly suggest this one! Just make sure you have time to ponder it afterward…