Cormac McCarthy's 1992 novel "All the Pretty Horses" was a best-seller and winner of the National Book Award. In addition, it catapulted McCarthy - a favorite of critics and writers but with little popular acclaim or sales - to literary fame.
"The Crossing" and "Cities of the Plain" followed to complete the "Border Trilogy," which represents just about all of what many readers know of the writer who is one of the living treasures of American letters.
Just as the "Border Trilogy" is responsible for McCarthy's popular reputation, his critical following can be attributed to the five freestanding novels that came before. Works including "Child of God," "Suttree" and his blood-soaked masterpiece "Blood Meridian" revealed McCarthy as a writer of uncommon power unafraid to tackle themes propelled by violence and man's war with himself.
His novels - populated by cowboys, bootleggers, outlaws, murderers and the odd necrophile - are not for the faint of heart. However, those who can endure his world (and his habit of eschewing many common rules of punctuation, such as quotation marks) are rewarded with some of the most vivid and potent writing of recent years.
Seven years after the disappointing "Cities of the Plain," McCarthy returns with "No Country for Old Men," a novel about a drug deal gone wrong along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.
The book will be surprising to some and discouraging to others.
It's surprising in that McCarthy has written, for all practical purposes, an action novel, complete with spectacular scenes of violence and a villain of unrepentant evil, and without much of the rumination that can be found in "All the Pretty Horses" and "The Crossing." And discouraging because too often this type of novel seems beneath McCarthy, not because of its plot (which is forced) or its dialogue (often stilted), but because "No Country for Old Men" frequently seems like the work of a lesser writer. It is a work of genre fiction that never truly transcends the genre.
Nevertheless, the novel has much to recommend it. Even when McCarthy is operating at less than full artistic strength, he is among the most formidable of writers. There are moments in the story, often near-apocalyptic scenes of bloodshed and death, that can stand with the prose of his earlier works.
And the plot, despite its faults, propels the reader on.
Llewelyn Moss is hunting when he comes upon three vehicles. He finds corpses, a load of heroin, and a suitcase stuffed with $2 million.
"It was level full of hundred dollar banknotes. They were in packets fastened with banktape stamped each with the denomination $10,000. He didnt know what it added up to but he had a pretty good idea. He sat there looking at it and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down. His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel."
He decides to take the money, knowing the risks the decision brings. And once it's learned that the money is missing, a one-man killing machine named Anton Chigurh is dispatched to find it. Moss is also being pursued by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who understands the extent of the danger Moss and his wife are in.
The story is interrupted by short chapters narrated by Bell, looking back on the incidents after several years. His voice in these passages is resigned, as if he has discovered that the fight against drugs cannot be won.
"I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics. Maybe he did."
Bell's resignation hangs over the book. In McCarthy's hands, the feud over a failed narcotics transaction is turned into a treatise on man's primal nature and the result is far from comforting. Good does not conquer evil, order is not restored, the guilty are not brought to justice.
And while "No Country for Old Men" falls short of McCarthy's best works in many respects, it is compelling when taken on its own terms. McCarthy's earlier novels seemed to come out of some other time and place, completely independent of the contemporary world. That is not the case in "No Country for Old Men," with a narrative acutely tuned to matters of the present day.
Despite this shift in tone, McCarthy's power is on full display in selected moments in this novel, proving again that when he is at the top of his game there are few writers who can touch him.