Riding the Highways of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men


Click to view clip

I have to admit that my first reaction to McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was a tad bit negative. I titled my early review of the novel “This is No Country for Old Men, And Let’s Go Ahead and Get Rid of the Skanky Hitchhiker, Walmarts, and Mobile Phones, Too.” I guess I was worried someone might get confused about how I felt. Don’t get me wrong: I love Cormac McCarthy’s works. I’m a parasite who has built a career, earned tenure, and bought a house because McCarthy is a creative genius.

But when my friend from the Biology department calls and wonders if No Country for Old Men was ghost written, the beer isn’t quite as cold and the couch not quite as soft.

Even now, much as it may pain me to admit, I like the Coen Brothers film version of the novel better than the novel itself. However, I can assure you it pains me even more to admit that I might have been wrong about the novel. (A professor in graduate school once told me the three hardest words for a college professor to say are “I was wrong,” followed closely by “I don’t know.”) I still have some issues with the novel.

There are plot holes big enough to drive a Dodge Ram through and occasionally the dialogue seems straight out of the cliché warehouse. You can follow Llewelyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, and Anton Chigurh’s routes. McCarthy’s knows how long it takes to drive those roads and he knows which small road to take. He places Bell on the Devils River Bridge while he’s hunting Chigurh, Satan personified in West Texas. That’s beautiful. There is an accuracy that usually blinds us to any possible historical anomalies.

And that’s why the gas chamber he mentions on page one matters to me. Forty-five minutes up the road from Houston you can visit Old Sparky in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. You can look at East Wall Unit near the county courthouse and imagine the inmates who lived there back when death row was housed in town. You can drive out over to the Ellis Unit and stare at the walls, wondering how the men felt when they took the long walk to the room for the lethal injection, something the state started doing in 1982. Prior to that, Texas used the electric chair until 1964.

Never a gas chamber. Surely, Bell knows this. He visited the boy on death row, tried to rescue a guilty man late in the novel from becoming a statistic many Texans are proud of. It’s not just the gas chamber, though. Wells gets an ATM card to use on the border, and Chigurh pulls Wells’ mobile phone out of his pocket when Moss calls. That must have been one hell of a pocket. It’s supposed to be 1980. I’m just glad Chigurh didn’t pull a laptop out and e-mail someone.

These inaccuracies begin to add up so that when the Sheriff comments that the hitchhiker was “Kind of a skankylookin little old girl,” I acted like my professor who threw Faulkner across the room. Tell the women and children to duck, dad’s reading a new novel. Skanky, according to the OED, comes into popular use in 1982 by Valley Girls and McCarthy wants his Van Horn sheriff to be that hip to the slang out of California? Maybe he was watching MTV, except MTV didn’t launch until 1981. Did I mention the novel begins in 1980?

But, the closer I get to being one of those old men worrying about country, the more I begin to appreciate other parts of the novel. The novel has become an acquired taste in the same way I can only appreciate a David Lynch movie after I am haunted by various scenes and characters. Lynch’s Lost Highway is largely incomprehensible (why in the world is Robert Blake wearing whiteface?), but I can’t drive at night anymore without imagining I’m Bill Pullman swerving down the yellow stripe. McCarthy’s novel has started working the same way. Every time I eat a steak, I wonder if they killed it with a cattle gun. (That’s a joke. I really just wonder where the steak sauce is sitting.) It is not a joke, though, to say that when I flip a coin, I always think of Chigurh and fate.

Now when I read the novel, I spend twenty minutes on the opening italics, pondering language that reminds me of the Crossing and opening comments that make me see even more clearly McCarthy’s debt to Dostoevsky. The italicized comments from Bell, coupled with Moss’ story, remind me of Hegel’s ideas of narrative. The performative act is important for Bell. He tells us he will not sacrifice his soul to pursue Chigurh and then proceeds to show us why not sacrificing matters to him. His internal angst becomes externalized narrative. By the end of the novel, he knows he’s beat and that is sad. There is no dramatic, romanticized cowboy death when this novel ends. In McCarthy’s world, we’ve already seen that those deaths don’t stop progress.

Unlike his other novels, though, NCFOM doesn’t show us a bunch of boys tooling across the country-side on horseback. It’s 1980 and the characters are largely bound by the state highway system. If you pull out your Texas state map, you can track the journey along state highway 90. Virtually, the entire novel takes place in the confines of West Texas, with a brief foray to Houston and one short hospital stay in Piedras Negras. This is an important shift in McCarthy’s world. It’s not, as some critics contend, necessarily because McCarthy has turned into a grumpy old man. I suspect McCarthy was grumpy long before this novel.

Like his other works, the landscape creates the story. Terrell County in Texas covers 2,358 square miles with a population of about 1,000 people. That’s almost twice the size of Rhode Island and Rhode Island has 1,050,788 people. They say it’s easy to hide in plain sight. It’s a lot easier to hide where there’s no one to sight you. Yet, with all the open spaces, Moss manages to find a drug deal gone bad as he hunts. When Moss runs, he doesn’t head for the mountains in Mexico. He puts his wife on a bus to Odessa and hits the highway for Del Rio and Eagle Pass. He spends in the night in motels and the only tent supplies he purchases he uses to hide money in the air vent at the Trail Motel in Del Rio. Moss is the domesticated, 20th century cowboy. He could be Lonnie Bannon from McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By, grown up and a Vietnam Vet. Of course, at times he also seems like an odd mix of Budd Davis from Urban Cowboy and Travis Henderson from Paris, Texas.

However capable he may seem, though, Moss can’t live in the contemporary southwest. For McCarthy, the landscape has changed just as the people have changed. Motels and roads make life convenient. Men can hunt in the morning and return to the trailer at night. If you lose someone, there are transponders that beep. Pathetic as it may seem, Moss’ death at a motel in Van Horn, TX seems a fitting end. The kid dies in the jakes, John Grady Cole dies in a cardboard box on the street corner, Billy Parham goes to sleep in a room off the kitchen, and Moss dies in the door frame of a cheap motel in a town off the freeway.

Motels, hospitals, skyscrapers—this is the new southwest for better or for worse. Trucks have replaced horses, clichéd as that may sound, and our experience of the land is at 55 miles an hour (70 in adjusted speed limits). We stop at the motel and establish temporary housing before gassing up and moving on. Moss tries to run but he’s trapped by the highway system that takes him up and down the border and unlike other McCarthy characters, he can’t get lost even if he wants to.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Riding the Highways of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men

  1. Curtis Densmore says:

    I’m glad someone else is annoyed by such passion for details while getting the mode of execution wrong. That being said, your information is a little off as well. Your mistake happens a lot. Since the 1920s, all executions in Texas have been carried out by the state (instead of the counties) at the Huntsville Unit, popularly known as the Walls Unit. All prisons in Texas are now known as “units” although the older ones have had various titles such as “state farm”. Due to extended stays on death row, these inmates were moved first to the Ellis Unit, and then the Polunsky Unit in Livingston. Inmates to be executed are moved to the Huntsville Unit the day of their execution.

    I’m a Huntsville resident, former correctional officer and I have a degree in history. Email me if you have any questions.


  2. Pingback: Hero as Conscience: Ed Tom Bell | C.T. Westing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

%d bloggers like this: