Even though I wrote somewhat critically of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, I quite liked Roger D. Hodge’s defense of it in the February 2006 Harper’s. Hodge is responding to James Wood, Joyce Carol Oates, and others who declared the novel, in short, a slight thriller. Hodge writes:
Perhaps it is not so unusual for major writers to receive bad reviews for good books, but there is something about the rough treatment this novel has received that is symptomatic of the shallowness and haste that characterizes so much of our literary culture. It’s hard to miss the malice that creeps into these essays but not so easy to explain it.
Hodge offers an informed and personal take on most of McCarthy’s novels (including Suttree, one of my very favorite novels). I liked this:
The course of history for McCarthy is one of never-ending destruction. He will give no solace to those who dream of an end to suffering, and yet offers some of the most delicate and sensitive representations of sorrow that I know.
Examples then follow. Of the new novel, Hodge writes:
…the sun has set decisively upon the dream of the West, and the eternal law of McCarthy’s bloodthirsty landscape has reasserted itself absolutely. But with a difference, it seems. This novel is spare, shorn of the high rhetoric and gorgeous descriptive passages that McCarthy’s readers have come to expect. The absence is painful, and therein lies a clue to the writer’s intentions. All the enchantment seems to have gone out of the world. Or nearly all.
Before the essay turns into a travelogue – with Hodge visiting many of the settings for McCarthy’s novels, settings in which he grew up – the reviewer makes a very interesting point about No Country’s Llewelyn Moss, who sets the story in motion by stumbling on a sack of drug money and not leaving without it.
It is not only the old people in this novel who have lost their way. Moss takes the money he finds in the desert with the full knowledge that in doing so he will forfeit all that he loves. And yet he cannot leave it. Leaving it would be unthinkable; the world in which he finds himself has foreclosed that possibility. That world, of course, is precisely the world of the thriller, and it could very well be that the impoverished world of the thriller is the one in which we find ourselves as well.
Look for this Harper’s issue at your local stand. I still don’t think No Country is a major achievement, but Hodge’s essay is a must-read for any fan of this major American novelist.