A Taut, Bloody Thriller, Philosophically Inflected

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 309 pages, $24.95.

The first reaction is visceral, and should be recorded here before the critical faculty interposes to hedge and qualify: I was so thoroughly sucked in and freaked out by No Country for Old Men that whenever I had to put the book down, just for a minute, I could feel my hands shaking. The action in Cormac McCarthy’s new novel is so violent, taut and appallingly convincing that it made me wish I could summon up some cynicism and disbelief.

Our hero, a Vietnam vet named Llewelyn Moss, finds a couple of million dollars way out in the desert, near the border between Texas and Mexico, at the scene of a drug deal gone hideously wrong—bodies lying everywhere in and around bullet-pocked pickup trucks. Moss, who’d been out hunting antelope, examines the carnage, noting the wanton use of automatic weapons. His dispassionate caution signals expertise—which is reassuring, sort of, until we come to this: “There was a leather document case standing alongside the dead man’s knee and Moss absolutely knew what was in the case and he was scared in a way he didn’t even understand.” Me, too.

Moss takes the money. And he’s pursued, relentlessly. The posse consists of various outraged drug dealers, a wise old Texas sheriff and a hit man named Chigurh who is, as the wise old sheriff says, “a true and living prophet of destruction.” We know Chigurh is evil because he kills people with a pneumatic cattle gun and shows a keen interest in watching them die. We know that the sheriff is wise because he talks to us directly, in italics, and shares his distilled libertarian views: “It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.” And we know Moss is our hero because he’s charmingly gruff with his very pretty, very young wife, and because he commits random acts of outright decency, like schlepping a jug of water back out into the desert to give to a wounded Mexican drug dealer. “There is no description of a fool,” he tells himself, “that you fail to satisfy.”

Many bad guys (and one good guy) chase a good guy who’s got loot he shouldn’t have—it’s an old story, but that doesn’t make it any less suspenseful. What eventually snapped the spell and released me from the spectacle of mesmerizing violence was the weight of Mr. McCarthy’s ambition, which grows heavier even as the death toll rises.

Neither an airport page-turner nor a screenplay in the making (though Scott Rudin has bought the film rights), No Country for Old Men is a literary novel with philosophical reverb (the title is lifted from the first line of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”) by an author richly decorated with highbrow honors: He was blessed with a MacArthur “genius” grant back in 1981; his fifth novel, Blood Meridian (1985), prompted Harold Bloom to declare that “no other living American novelist … has given us a book as strong and memorable”; and in 1992 he won both a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award (for the meretricious All the Pretty Horses, the first installment of the best-selling Border Trilogy).

So … ultra-violence wed to ponderous artistic intent, without a wink of irony. Cormac McCarthy is not the winking kind.

It seems he wants us to think hard about death. He deploys his baddest guy as a kind of existential inquisitor: Face to face with his doomed victims, Chigurh demands that they acknowledge him as the agent of inexorable fate. “Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing,” he says, sounding a bit like Gertrude Stein on crank. “Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased.” For clarity’s sake, he adds: “When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end.”

Unfortunately, these philosophically inflected passages only reminded me that Cormac McCarthy, novelist, is the one who choreographed all the blood splatter and arranged the blasted corpses; he shaped the sequential slaughter into a highly effective narrative structure. Mr. McCarthy, not Chigurh, is the agent of fate.

A bigger problem is Blood Meridian, to which No Country for Old Men will inevitably be compared. Also unbearably violent, also set along the Mexican border, also much concerned with Destiny, Blood Meridian is a historical novel loosely based on the Indian-hunting expeditions of the Glanton gang, circa 1850. At once beautiful and horrifying, it’s essentially a chronicle of desperate reciprocal massacres—a frontier epic steeped in gore.

Blood Meridian is improbably florid, the intentionally archaic prose rolling on in Old Testament cadences, with echoes of Shakespeare, Melville, Faulkner. Imagine an entire novel written with this kind of fervid energy: “They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them. The shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand and the shapes of the men and their mounts advanced elongate before them like strands of the night from which they’d ridden, like tentacles to bind them to the darkness yet to come.”

There’s nothing even remotely florid about No Country for Old Men; it sounds like Raymond Carver on a diet: “The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself. He lowered the binoculars and sat studying the land. Far to the south the raw mountains of Mexico. The breaks of the river …. He spat dryly and wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his cotton workshirt.” Verbs are as scarce as commas in this arid landscape. The writing is clean and accurate and effective—and that’s it.

The important difference between the two novels is that the earlier one will endure, as Faulkner would say. I’ll leave the heroic superlatives to Harold Bloom, but Blood Meridian is mammoth, a hugely impressive achievement. Set beside it, No Country for Old Men looks like a quick fix.

I suspect that Mr. McCarthy hoped his lean new novel would deliver with fresh urgency the old message about America and violence—as the sheriff says, “This country has got a strange kind of history and a damned bloody one too.” And Chigurh’s deadly mind games were supposed to provoke some deep thoughts about the tenuousness of our existence, the certainty of our eventual extinction and the folly of folk who believe that they can control their own destiny. It’s too bad Mr. McCarthy wasn’t content just to scare us witless.

Remember the line from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”? “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” I suspect that the pared-down McCarthy prose was aiming to result in that kind of indelible, perfectly crafted sentence. Anyway, I thought No Country for Old Men was a good high-end thriller—until the shooting stopped and Significance took over.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.