Cool It, New York Times. Sheriff Bell Is Not Running For Office

A Counter-review Of Cormac McCarthy’s

The Texas sheriff in Cormac McCarthy’s new novel belongs on the conservative side of the culture war, as politicians, both red and blue, like to call it. But America’s deep national misunderstanding is not owned by the politicians. And “No Country For Old Men” is not a political novel.

It’s a shame that the New York Times reviewers, reflecting the culture of the U.S. book industry, chose to politicize the book and then ridicule the author and his work, politically. In the Times Book Review, “frequent contributor” Walter Kirn said the sheriff, named Ed Tom Bell, is “a Goldwaterian granddad” and “an unreconstructed patriarchal geezer” whose “drawling, cracker-barrel soliloquies overflow with crusty red-state sentiments that may or may not represent the author’s feelings but probably don’t violate them terribly.”

In the news pages review, Michiko Kukutana indicts the sheriff for “portentious meditations” and “lugubrious passages” and “ponderous and high-falutin’ musings” that weigh down the “quicksilver suspense of the larger story.” Both reviewers can hardly wait for the movie, which presumably will be all action, no philosophizing.

I mean, they really hate that old sheriff. As if he were alive and running for office down there in West Texas. They want to refute him, shut him up. I suppose that says something about McCarthy’s genius, his artful creation of life in print – although they don’t give him credit. So goes political correctness.

True, several of the sheriff’s monologs of alienation define the “country” of the title as America itself, but that doesn’t make the novel political. Both reviewers cite the place where the sheriff says, “When you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.” Kirn dismissively equates this as the “broken window morality” of Rudolf Giuliani (which happened to work). But the reviewers overlook the context of the quote. It’s just something the sheriff tells a news reporter, and he has little respect for reporters.

Kirn’s longest direct quote in support of his case is a paragraph from one of the alienated sheriff’s intercut monologs where he equates abortion and euthanasia. Shade of Terri Schiavo. But I think that’s the only passage in the whole book that directly addresses a contemporary political issue, even though there are plenty of opportunities to address others. The war on drugs, especially. . .

The story is set on the Mexican border during the narcotraficante violence 25 years ago that included the assassination of a federal judge (John H. Wood, who had sent away an El Paso kingpin named Jimmy Chagra.) It begins with a luckless antelope hunter coming upon bodies in the desert, a satchel of hundred-dollar bills and a Bronco load of heroin, then it cuts to the first murder by the novel’s Satanic killer, named interestingly enough, Chigurh. It’s all happening in Sheriff Bell’s formerly safe little county, and for openers he says, “I aint sure we’ve seen these people before. Their kind. I don’t know what to do about em even.”

This new evil has him stopped cold. For one, he says in a monolog, “There’s peace officers along this border getting rich off of narcotics. That’s a powerful thing to know.” And, near the end of the book: “It’s not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was. There’s always been narcotics. But people don’t just dope themselves for no reason. By the millions. I don’t have no answer about that.”

If this were a political novel, or if he were a red-state politician, he would have all the answers – would know what ought to be done. More surveillance blimps, tougher laws on trafficking, tougher judges, more prison cells, more money for law enforcement, etc. Politicians don’t depart from the standard text. Creative solutions, such as the proposal a few years ago by New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson to legalize drugs, can ruin a political career.

McCarthy’s sheriff is probably right to retire – before he’s defeated with strategies by the likes of Karl Rove or Scooter Libby and with money raised by Tom DeLay. He’s too honest by contemporary campaign standards, red or blue. He never ran, for example, as a World War II hero, although he had the medals (which haunt him because of survivor guilt and a commitment to truth). In campaigning, he says, he always “tried to be fair” and to remember, as his grandfather liked to say, “Any time you’re throwin dirt you’re losin ground.” Not a formula for success these days.

And he’s no parading Christian, contrary to the reviewer’s dismissive summation of his thinking, in Kirn’s words: “Satan exists, the world is getting worse, and God is too busy with other matters to care. He’s written us off and moved on to fresh creations.”

The Satan part (Chigurh) is true. The God part is the reviewer’s inference, and a false one. I think the sheriff mentions God once, in an opinion about the failure of America in Vietnam: “You can’t go to war without God.” That’s something Bob Dylan might have sung. The sheriff isn’t even sure about an afterlife. When a deputy calls the bodies in the desert “just a bunch of Mexican drug runners,” the sheriff says, “They were. They aint now.” The deputy: “I aint sure what you’re sayin.” The sheriff: “I’m just sayin that whatver they were the only thing they are now is dead.” The deputy: “I’ll have to sleep on that.”
The sheriff does say, in his own true idiom: “People anymore you talk about right and wrong they’re liable to smile at you. But I never had any doubts about things like that.” Further, he has an absolute commitment to truth. “I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet. It don’t move about from place to place and it don’t change from time to time. You cant salt it anymore than you can salt salt.” But these sentiments don’t mean he has all the answers, which is what passes for “moral certainty” in politics these days. And this is why we can’t trust politicians, red and blue, to do anything but escalate the national misunderstanding.

“No Country For Old Men” is another McCarthy novel written ingeniously in the idiom of its time and its people. West Texans and southern New Mexicans talk like Sheriff Bell. And the idiom, more than the meaning, is what apparently led the New York Times reviewers to see cracker barrels everywhere. McCarthy people talk to each other at length, and the talk is real, compelling, believable. There’s genius in McCarthy’s ear. In other books he has captured the talk of American cowboys, Mexican impresarios, Appalachian itinerants, among others. This strength is passed over by both reviewers.

On the contrary, the standard bestseller novelists celebrated by the book industry, avoid long dialog because, I suppose, it’s harder than advancing a plot through narrative commentary: “She knew at that moment. She felt. He thought. . .” And so forth. In other words, it’s harder to show than to tell, as the old saw goes. What’s so wrong about standard industry-supporting book reviews is that the narrative shortcuts are seldom criticized for what they are, cheap tricks.

Instead, reviewers of standard novels focus on plot, which more often than not determines character. In the superselling novel “The Da Vinci Code” with its silly discussions of double and triple conspiracy theory, character is so subservient to plot that it vanishes.

A master of the shortcut style is E. L. Doctorow, whose new novel, “The March,” about William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastation from Atlanta through Georgia and the Carolinas is trampling up the bestseller lists. He makes so much use of omniscient narrative commentary that there is no point of view in this novel – or at least the narrator reads the minds of so many characters that point of view becomes meaningless.

It so happens that the Times Book Review chose Kirn to review “The March,” and he loved it and defended the standard style. “When the subject is as large and old as war,” he says, “the pursuit of pristine originality can thin a story down to nothing. To get through such tales aesthetically unscathed is a finicky, slightly cowardly objective that works against basic honesty and passion.”

By comparison, he said of McCarthy on approximately the same point of style: “The characters’ states of mind rate little commentary and are completely dissolved in their behavior, which consists of fleeing and fighting and little else.” I disagree. The characters’ states of mind don’t need narrative commentary because the characters are rigorously and effectively dramatized. It’s not the fleeing and the fighting, but the talking that make McCarthy characters come alive.

By contrast, “The March” is like watching the progress of a board game with wooden pieces. The thinking of the characters is constantly revealed passively by the mind-reading narrator, not by action and dialog. Apart from Doctorow’s fake darkie accents, the characters speak a remarkably contemporary idiom with expressions such as “Absolutely” or “Say what?” I longed for the skill of McCarthy in portraying the same characters in the same region in approximately the same time in his Faulknerian “Outer Dark.”

Let me demonstrate the difference in styles in an effort to show it is not trivial. The subject is fate.

Chigurh, the professional who kills as if he were an instrument of fate – perhaps fate itself – is irritated by a nosey convenience store clerk on a lonely highway. The clerk doesn’t have a clue the danger he’s in. But the reader knows, through dialogue reminiscent of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Chigurh flips a coin. He says:

“You know the date on this coin?


“It’s nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been traveling 22 years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here. And I’ve got my hand over it. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.”

The clerk calls it right and lives.

In “The March” Gen. Sherman muses about fate in battle. He has seen a man’s head taken off by a cannon ball. “That was not fate. There are too many missiles in the air for it to be your fate to be killed by one of them,” he thinks.

I side with McCarthy.