This is a fabulous book. (I just want to have that clear up front, in case someone can’t be bothered to read the whole review.)

I read The Road a few years back and loved it. Knowing that, Eric gave me this one as a Christmas present.

The back cover blurb didn’t sound too interesting. A drug deal gone wrong, a psychopathic killer, lots of people dead, “a Western thriller with a racy plot.” Weeeellll OK, I’ll give it a try.

And after a dozen pages I was hooked. The back cover blurb is factually correct but really the plot is the least important part of this book. It’s all about the tone, the mood, the way of telling the story.

To very briefly summarize the story, Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon the remains of that drug deal gone wrong, including lots of guns, dead bodies, and cash. He takes the cash. But the owners of the money won’t let it go so easily. Soon he’s chased by a bunch of Mexicans as well as a psychopathic hit man, Anton Chigurh. He’s no pushover (having served in Vietnam as a sniper) but Chigurh is in a class of his own. After the county sheriff finds out what’s going on, he also starts looking for Moss, hoping to somehow save his life.

But the theme of the book, if I were to summarize it in a single sentence, is the erosion of America’s morals. “People don’t say Sir and Ma’am any more,” as one of the characters puts it. And that (and the killings) is what sets the tone for the book.

Aside: I know some people cannot read and enjoy books they don’t agree with – books about homosexuals, or about people with bad manners, or about men with unfashionable views on women, or whatever their gripe. I have no problem with disagreeing with a book’s message. Unlike the sheriff, I don’t mind “kids with green hair and bones through their noses”, but I like the book nevertheless.

The mood is bleak and bloody, grim. Not even halfway through the book it becomes obvious that there isn’t going to be any happy ending here. The readers should count themselves lucky to see some of the good guys survive.

McCarthy has a very pared-down writing style, with very little punctuation. There is little to separate dialogue from exposition, so they can be hard to keep apart. It’s all very sparse: “show, don’t tell” all the way, and even the showing is brief, condensed, concentrated.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the sparseness, the book is very driven and intense, and vivid, almost as if it was written as a movie script. Every scene is so clear that I can see it in front of me. I only had some difficulty with the initial scenes, because I really don’t know what a West Texan floodplain looks like, what sort of plants candelilla and catclaw might be, or what a talus is. And I wasn’t going to interrupt my reading for a visit to Wikipedia.

It all just flows perfectly. There is nothing in this book that could be done better.

Eric and I watched the movie shortly after I’d finished the book, and it complemented the book very well. (So that’s what West Texas looks like.) It’s a very faithful rendition, and an excellent movie in its own right.

Adlibris, Amazon US, Amazon UK.

PS: Actually there is one thing about the book that really could have been done better, but it’s on the outside of the book, not inside. It has a very nice typographic book cover, sepia-toned letters on black background, stylish, matches the tone of the book very well. And then… they slap a marketing quote on it. Gaah! (Read about the book cover from the guys who made it.)