Cormac McCarthy's new novel, No Country For Old Men, is terse, taut, and tense, a linguistically spare--almost stingy--meditation on the obsolecence of core human values in an increasingly inhumane and alienating world. This is a novel of few words, if that makes any sense; it's also a novel of immense thoughtfulness. To write a reticent novel about the complexities of human motivation, which in many ways is what McCarthy has done here, may seem to be a contradiction in terms: Complexity tends to require explication; novelistic elucidations of psychology are typically quite talkative about what characters are thinking and why they act as they do. But in McCarthy's hands, reticence--among characters as well as on the part of the narrative itself--proves to be a very telling vehicle.
The title comes from William Butler Yeats' poem, "Sailing to Byzantium":
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
--Those dying generations--at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Yeats' poem serves as a sort of basic gloss on the deeper thematic concerns of a novel that, on its surface, is a deceptively plot-driven story about violence and drug-running in southern Texas, circa 1980.
I won't spoil the novel by saying more--only that this is a novel to read with speed and then to consider thoughtfully and with care.