NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

By Cormac McCarthy

Knopf. 309 pp. $24.95

For 40 years, since The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy has brought forth literature as important as it is rare. Beyond that, critics and readers tend to diverge wildly with each novel, which to my eye is further proof of the writer's power. No Country for Old Men will have the same effect. This is a profoundly disturbing and gorgeously rendered novel that will certainly be quibbled with. Not the least of the objections will almost surely be what makes the novel so attractive. No Country for Old Men is the most accessible of all McCarthy's works. This is not necessarily a good thing.

The plot is simple. One fine morning in west Texas, a young Vietnam vet is antelope hunting when he comes upon the carnage of a drug deal gone bad. Both heroin and a suitcase of cash remain at the site, along with a number of bodies. The cash is enough to entice the otherwise upright Llewelyn Moss to steal it, although conveniently it's not so much that it can't be carried, not even after Moss receives the first in a long line of wounds. Moss has a moral clarity reminiscent of John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses (1992); he knows he's making the worst mistake of his life but can't resist the temptation or the chance to test himself. He knows he'll be hunted (and hunted he is) but believes he can outsmart the hunters.

The other two main characters enter as polarities: a psychopathic killer, Anton Chigurh, whose only apparent moral code is to leave no witnesses to his existence; and Sheriff Bell, a World War II veteran who's a bit smarter than most other law enforcement officers and does his best to find and protect Moss while offering thoughts on existence and the unhinged modern world. The sheriff has his own dark secret which, unfortunately, is somewhat at odds with his character.

Finally, other than a handful of minor characters, there are three women -- or two and a half, depending how you count. The wives of Moss and Bell are tough, tender women, rock-solid square behind their men. The third has the same potential but like most everyone in the novel winds up dead first.

McCarthy's language is stripped lean and mean here. In places, dialogue carries large sections of the story. His ear for speech, dialect and wordplay remains noteworthy in American letters. His descriptive passages are lucid and visual -- this novel needs no film adaptation. He writes in painstaking and painful detail about self-treatment of gunshot wounds, exhibiting a near-morbid fascination that's beyond the call of the narrative. Even what in previous novels were long digressions are now minimal injections of first-person rumination and reflection by Bell. In short, No Country for Old Men is a page-turner. Readers who have been unwilling to wade through McCarthy's more complicated fables will be swept along for the ride. Many long-term readers will do the same.

So what's not to like? Plenty. The symbolism is achingly awkward, starting with the names; Moss, Bell, Chigurh (rhymes with "sugar" but reminded this reader of chigger, the small boring insect that gets under the skin and causes a rash, pain and possibly blood infection). Narcotics are the broken hinge of the world or, as the sheriff, who offers homely and homespun thoughts at a numbing rate, has it, "If you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics." Modern society's abandonment of Christ is frequently mentioned, which, while fitting the near-stereotypical rural nature of these characters, is handled simplistically. Even moments that on first reading appear insightful lose their sheen a second time through:

"Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning."

Bell's wife, Loretta, is quickly sketched but has a vibrancy lacking in more fully realized women from previous works. Still, it's hard to picture ex-prisoners bringing their new wives to meet her and breaking into tears because she fed them well when they were incarcerated. Cornpone, pure and simple.

That said, this is an entertaining novel from one of our best writers. Often seen as a fabulist and an engineer of dark morality tales, McCarthy is first a storyteller. But No Country for Old Men is a minor addition to his work. Rumor has it that this novel came to the publisher at around 600 pages. If that is the case, one can't help but wonder if a truly magnificent work was lost at the cost of pruning with an eye toward the marketplace. *

Jeffrey Lent's last novel was "Lost Nation." A new novel will be published next year.