This is a novel about disillusionment. It admits the existence of a previously unthinkable evil and in that sense also a story about defeat, or the paltriness of human defenses.
Aging small-town Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, on the cusp of retirement, is presented with the aftermath of a desert bloodbath following a drug deal gone bad. But local welder and good guy opportunist Llewellyn Moss has gotten to the killing field first, making off with a satchel of millions. Thus begins a remorseless hunt for culprits and cash, most of it carried out in law’s vacuum.
McCarthy gets to hopelessness early on, when he introduces assassin Anton Chigurh, more creature than man, “an expert in a difficult field,” a bounty hunter Vishnu whose capacity to rationalize brutality gives Ed Tom chills and hideous insight: “I just have this feeling that we’re looking at something that we really ain’t seen before.”
Though the year is 1980, just after the end of the Vietnam War, nothing here depends on a clock’s conventional ticking. It’s an American fable. McCarthy honors the sheriff’s respectful and affirming decency, his adoration of his wife Loretta, his loathing of narcotics. He does the same for ingenious, desert-smart Llewellyn, a valorous but ill-fated criminal.
But Chigurh is the novel’s brain-spattering glue, a consummately post-nuclear hit man conjured outside nationality and origin who is what morality should not allow: a scrupulous reaper (“I live a simple life,” he says). A rational, reasonable, earth-salted man, Ed Tom recognizes the assassin as being composed of matter to which he “may very well not be equal…”
Seconds before he slays a rival, Chigurh announces cryptically “things have fallen into place that were not there before.” That falling into place is the shoving aside of principled man like Ed Tom, whose story this book is, and whose era it stoically ends. “This country will kill you in a heartbeat and people still love it,” says the rueful sheriff.
With McCarthy at the helm of a superlative parable, loving homicidal America is made easier. The Coen Brothers produced a fine adaptation, though not the equal of the words.