No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Before this book, I hadn’t read anything by McCarthy. I’d looked at All the Pretty Horses a couple of times thinking I ought to check it out, but couldn’t make it past the first couple of pages, with that disjointed first paragraph and the (I gather) now-famous image of a train as a “ribald satellite”. No, I thought. I have better things to do with my time. However, choosing books on tape at the library for a road trip, I picked this one up not realising who the author was and did, in fact, end up listening to it. Two things kept me interested.

The first was the narrator. With audio books, I’ve found that the narrator can make all the difference to a story. For example, I had no interest in the Harry Potter books until, on a friend’s recommendation, I tried Jim Dale’s audio versions and was immediately hooked. Other books I’ve had to give up on: the narrator’s tone was too uninflected (hence, boring); his/her accent was incorrect; s/he couldn’t differentiate the characters’ voices or—in one terrible case—keep the different voices straight.

Here, Tom Stechschulte gives a fine performance, but what really hooked me was that he sounds just like a friend of mine who is a native Texan. Now, I know several folks from Texas, but I’d never met anyone who sounded so much like my friend, not just the accent, but the intonation, the expressions, the pacing—everything. It was like having him right there in the car with me, telling me a story.

The other thing that kept me interested was the idea of the irrevocable decision. Llewellyn Moss, out hunting on his day off, stumbles across a drug deal gone bad, cars and dead men just lying there in the desert sun. He bypasses the drugs but chooses to take the bag full of money, a decision that drives the rest of the book. Yes, it’s your basic thriller, an ordinary man caught up in violent events he doesn’t completely understand. Moss is pursued by many people, but principally by Anton Chigurh, a killer for hire who is relentless and brutal.

Chigurh seemed like a robot to me, or maybe the posse in Butch Cassidy—something put there to keep the plot moving. It wasn’t just Chigurh; all of the characters except Moss seemed wooden and predictable. And the story seemed like one of those kill-fest films that are on tv sometimes on Saturday afternoon: just a lot of car chases, fight scenes and gore, without even a wood-chipper or a tango to make things interesting. Yet I kept listening, beguiled by Stechschulte’s voice, fascinated by the thought that one decision can set you on a path there’s no coming back from.

When I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard back in my teens, I was horrified by this line of Guildenstern’s: “‘There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it.'” For years I painstakingly examined every decision, not wanting to miss that moment. However, despite all my obsessive care, no major decision has turned out the way I thought it would. I’ve learned to live with my irrevocable decisions and their unintended consequences. Still, I was curious to see how Moss’s decision to take the money would work out, if he would find a way to avoid the fate the book’s title promised.

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