Seven million dollars can change your life. You can eat at Chipotle every day until you die, or you can finally complete your collection of rare Game Boy games. You can even donate a few bucks to a charity of your choice. Maybe. But whatever you do, your life and the lives of your family would be totally different with that kind of money. What would you do with all that dough?
Actually, the more interesting question is what would you do for all that dough? Buy a bunch of magazines from Publisher's Clearinghouse? Humiliate yourself on reality TV? Or steal it from a gang of drug dealers and run like a bat out of Hades?
Who let that bat out of Hades?
Anyway, money is the question facing the main character in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. This dude chooses the sack of cash behind door number three—that's the door filled with guns and heroin. After he finds over $2 million in drug money—7 million smackers in 2015 money—Llewelyn Moos spends the rest of his life—which ends up not being very long—on the run from a psychopath named Anton Chigurh, who will stop at nothing to get all that money back.
However, this book isn't really about getting rich quick and dying trying. It's a vicious story about the international drug trade, and it's a story without a single shred of hope. At least, if there was one, we couldn't find it after it's all been ground to dust beneath the Cowboy Boot of Death that Anton Chigurh's got attached to his foot.
No Country is like a modern-day Western, only with war veterans instead of cowboys and heroin instead of cattle. To emphasize how different the world is—and how difficult it's become in some old men's eyes—McCarthy cooks up a somewhat confusing writing style, writing in thick dialect and ignoring typical literary conventions such as grammar or punctuation. The biggest casualty in this War on Drugs? Commas.
Although it is set in 1980, Cormac McCarthy published No Country for Old Men in 2005.It's a standalone novel that followed on the heels of McCarthy's acclaimed Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. McCarthy returned to the Mexico-Texas border with No Country, but his Border Trilogy books were set in the 1950s. In the thirty years that have passed, this region became a much darker and much more dangerous place.
McCarthy won no major awards for No Country—those would come later with The Road in 2006. But he did create Anton Chigurh, one of the greatest villains in modern literature. Chigurh was portrayed by Javier Bardem in the Coen Brothers adaptation of this film in 2007. Joining Bardem were Tommy Lee Jones as honorable but out-of-his-league Sheriff Bell, and Josh Brolin as the doomed Llewelyn Moss (source). Bardem won an Oscar for his role as this terrifying remorseless killer, and the Coen brothers also took trophies for Director, Screenplay, and Best Picture.
Look like the drug trade does have a few winners, after all.
Okay, not really. This is a very grim book, one intended to draw attention to the dangers of the drug trade. It's definitely not full of glamorous like stories about the mafia, and it's certainly not romantic like the classic Westerns it draws inspiration from. Put down your lassos, folks, because they won't do any good against the kind of evil you're gonna see in this book. Nothing will do any good. All you can do is read the book and try your hardest to not lose all hope.
Has anyone ever seen Cormac McCarthy and McGruff the Crime Dog in the same place? We doubt it, because they're clearly the same person. Or dog. Or person-shaped dog. Or dog-shaped person?
Whatever McGruff and McCarthy are, they have one major lesson in common: Say No to Drugs, kids.
While the War on Drugs was actually started by Richard Nixon in 1971, it really got into full swing in the 1980s. Drug use was at an all-time high, and Nancy Reagan urged kids to "Say No to Drugs." Come to think of it, we've never seen McCarthy and Nancy Regan in the same place either…
Anyway, by 1997, over 400,000 people were in jail for non-violent drug offenses (source).
That's not a typo: non-violent offenders are the ones in jail. It seems like Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men in 2005 to show these old men—like Nixon and Reagan—that their strategy is wrong, and that's why we're losing the drug war. It's not the non-violent offenders that are the problem. That's a shortsighted analysis of the problem. McCarthy traces the issue to its roots—the violent drug runners who smuggle drugs into the country—and will stop at nothing to do it.
Partly to draw attention to the real issue, McCarthy crafted an insanely violent book that isn't about drug users; it's about everyone else involved in the drug trade. The violent destruction of the drug trade trickles down and affects everyone in the country, making it no country for anyone.
However, even though McCarthy turns the lens around to the root of the problem, he has no solution. Maybe because there isn't a solution. Or maybe he's hoping his book will open people's eyes to the true problem, and somehow, someone will find a way to fix it and make the country a better place. Perhaps after you read No Country for Old Men, that person will be you.
Cormac McCarthy doesn't just have a website, he has a society, whose goal is to "to further the scholarship and general appreciation of Cormac McCarthy's writing." So… appreciate it, Shmoopers.
A Little Bit of Journaling
Cormac McCarthy also has a journal dedicated to his writing. So if you need a few dozen scholarly articles to read, this is the place.
If the movie and the book engaged in a duel, who would win? This guide to differences between book and film can help you place your bet.
Roger Ebert gives the movie four thumbs up—er, we mean four stars. He especially loves the dialogue taken straight from the book.
No Interviews for Cormac McCarthy
In 2005, McCarthy gave the second interview of his career. As in interview one, interview two, and… that's it. He's so reclusive, we can't even find the text of the interview online—only this article about the interview in Vanity Fair magazine.
Red Dead Redemption
This article about McCarthy's entire violent oeuvre is called "Red Planet." We're not sure if that is because Texas is like Mars or because the ground is so bloody after all the violence.
Sit Back and Don't Relax
The Times approves of McCarthy's brand of "Texas Noir."
Annie Proulx, who wrote Brokeback Mountain, reviews No Country for Old Men and doesn't even lament the lack of steamy cowboy-on-cowboy action.
How Much Has YouTube Risked on a Coin Toss?
The coin-toss scene is just as harrowing—maybe even more so—in the movie as it is in the book.
Chigurh isn't as intimidating with a feminine voice, is he?
No Public Radio for Old Men
NPR reviews No Country and all its hopelessness. Since the movie wasn't out yet, we forgive Alan Cheuse for mispronouncing "Chigurh."
The Partially Examined Life podcast missed an opportunity to coin Texastentialism in this discussion of Nietzsche and McCarthy. That's Texas + Existentialism for you non-philosophy folks.