Hello and welcome to this installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I’m back to novels as we approach the end of this year’s experiment, last time wrapping up an analysis of workplace comedy and now pivoting toward an author who is a favorite of mine: Cormac McCarthy and his masterful 2005 work No Country For Old Men.
This author is quite established as one of the greatest contemporary storytellers. I had already read (and been blown away by) The Road several years ago, and wanted to take another dive into McCarthy’s western worlds. This was without a doubt one of the best novels I’ve read in some time, but I want to pull out the major lessons before I get to why I felt it was such a great book.
Finding your voice. There can be no doubt that this author provides a master class in how to do this throughout the work. It is well known that McCarthy is possibly the only author to get away with using the most minimal punctuation required. Character speech is never demarcated by quotation marks (he only ever uses “Chigurh said” this, or “Moss said” that), he constantly jams up two or more words into one (“shirtpocket,” “domelight,” “dumbernhell”) and generally plays with language in ways that most editors would never let an amatuer get away with. This indicates an author in supreme command of his skills, and it never really distracted from the text for me. It was that good.
Using the novel to talk about society. McCarthy sets this novel in 1980, enabling him to populate it with veterans of two wars: Moss (Vietnam) and WWII (Bell). This shades their experiences in many ways, with Moss seeing how his life can change with stolen drug money and Bell attempting to rectify leaving his men on the battlefield in Europe. This is masterfully interwoven with the drug runner story, told partially through interludes with Bell as he describes the falling away of the country over the last few decades. Some critics weren’t fans of McCarthy’s pseudo-sermonizing, but it’s worth mentioning that not a lot of “good guys” come out on top at the end of the book. Take from that what you will.
Overall, if you can stomach the appalling levels of violence, this book can teach yards to any aspiring writer. If nothing else it’s worth reading just for the stunning control over his writing that McCarthy displays on every page. I’ll even go as far as to say no other author comes close to displaying how to find and use one’s voice than this guy.
(I also made an exception and re-visited the astounding, Oscar-winning film adaptation directed by the Coens ten years ago to see how much it represented the novel. While not quite as good, you’ll hardly find a better example of directors using source material in every way to tell a gritty and great story.)
It’s looking like I have room to fit at least one more work before this year wraps up, so I’m going to take on an epic that has echoed through the ages: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was lucky to pick up a Norton Critical Edition which contains a ton of extra essays, criticism and analysis of the work, so I hope to be able to add some commentary on this story and how it has affected literature for decades.
Hope everyone has safe travels over this holiday weekend, and thanks as always for reading.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.