A modern, more brutal western

Cormac McCarthy writes of drug dealers and hit men instead of cowboys

A Vietnam veteran goes hunting and stumbles across a truckful of heroin, $2.4 million, and a lot of dead bodies.

It sounds like the plot of an old "A- Team" episode, but instead it is the first novel in seven years from National Book Award-winner Cormac McCarthy.

The setting is the west Texas McCarthy rendered so memorably in his award-winning Border Trilogy.

But "No Country for Old Men" is set in 1980. Instead of teenaged cowboys, the border is now populated by drug dealers and hit men, and it appears that most of the beauty has been stripped from the landscape.

The hunter's name is Llewelyn Moss, and although he knows some rather unpleasant people are going to come looking for the cash, he grabs it anyway.

Within hours, he has three men on his trail: Anton Chigurh, a sociopath armed with a cattle gun and a twisted world view; an ex-Army colonel named Wells; and Sheriff Bell, the old man of the title, who's trying to find Moss before the other two get to him.

The book's voice belongs to Bell, not Moss, who blunders on from dumb decision to really dumb decision.

In italicized conversations with the reader that are interspersed between shootouts, Bell confides that he's pretty sure he's no match for Chigurh (not that Bell knows his name - Chigurh never leaves anyone alive who can provide a description).

In 31 years as sheriff, Bell has sent a total of one man to death row, and he's never killed anyone in the line of duty. "This county has not had a unsolved homicide in 41 years. Now we got nine of em in a week."

For that, Bell blames himself: "if you got a bad enough dog in your yard, people will stay out of it. And they didn't."

Not that the fainthearted typically peruse westerns, but "Old Men" is brutal by any standard.

The first killing occurs on Page 4, the second on Page 5, and after that, even the characters have a hard time keeping track.

The pace is deliberately grim and airless - the book has little of the space and quiet that resonated beneath "All the Pretty Horses" and "The Crossing."

As a result, the murders are numbing rather than moving, and none has the power of the lone boot left after the death of a teenage boy in "Horses." That numbness is shared by Bell, who no longer understands the world he's living in.

He spends almost as much time detailing the crimes of a self-absorbed country that can't be troubled to raise its own children as he does tracking Moss.

His hopelessness and sense of futility are alleviated only by his much-loved wife, Loretta, a character that most readers will also come to regard as a balm - if an underwritten one.

There's less of McCarthy's descriptive powers in this outing, but this time it may be a deliberate effort to strip down the writing to match the bleakness of the tale.

Also, motels just aren't as attractive as Mexican haciendas, nor are Ford Broncos as romantic as horses.

Longtime fans may miss the way McCarthy could mine poetry from the unexpected, as with this description of an older man in "The Crossing": "His eyes were very blue and very beautiful half hid away in the leathery seams of his face. As if there were something there that the hardness of the country had not been able to touch." In 1980, the hardness seems to be all that is left.

Bell and his deputy sum up the world view of "Old Men" pretty succinctly as they survey the initial massacre site: " 'It's a mess, aint it Sheriff?' 'If it aint it'll do till a mess gets here.' "

Yvonne Zipp is a freelancer writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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