What else? | Last scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger

What else?

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Versions of the phrase What else repeat throughout The Passenger, sometimes at the beginning of a sentence but more often than not as a two-word statement or question. It’s a verbal tic not unlike the plentiful instances of They rode on to be found in Blood Meridian, and like that phrase, it serves as a linguistic placeholder that both moves the action of the novel and also advances one of its central philosophical themes.

What else? here is plaintive, existential, but also human, relatable.

The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment.”

The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills

A small mule danced in a flowered field. He stopped to watch it. It rose on its hind legs like a satyr and sawed its head about. It whinnied and hauled at its rope and kicked and it stopped and stood splayfooted and stared at Western and then went hopping and howling. It had browsed through a nest of wasps but Western didnt know how to help it and he went on.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

This minor scene in the last pages of The Passenger seems like another previously-rare self-referential move on McCarthy’s part. Our “unchallenged king of literary mule carnage” sets up what appears, at first, a bucolic, even corny image—a mule dancing in a field of flowers. The pastoral, frolicking image comes undone under scrutiny—the mule is not at play but under duress. But the duress is not the result of a moral malice. It’s simply natural. Western cannot assuage the mule’s pain, he can only observe it, which he does so with a stoic measure of sympathy.

Detail from Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the Dead Mule, Honore Daumier, 1867

He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

The other dream was this. There was a riderless horse standing at a gate at dawn. Some other country, some other time. The news that the horse brings is a day’s ride old, no more. The horse’s dreams were once of mares and grass and water. The sun. But those dreams are no more. His is a world of blood and slaughter and the screams of men and animals all of which he has little understanding of. The horse stands at the gate with his head bowed while the day breaks. He wears a cloak of knitted steel dark with blood and he stands with one forefoot tilted upon the stones. No one comes. The news does not arrive.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

The above passage was probably the saddest moment in The Passenger for me. The speaker is the ghost of Long John Sheddan, present in the consciousness of Bobby Western. It is the horse’s dream inside of Sheddan’s dream (inside of Western’s dream (McCarthy’s dream)) that I find so sad—an Edenic vision flooded with the reality of blood and violence, by the mechanics of war. The horse stalks the stones of the earth, awaiting a revelation that does not come to pass. No one comes. The news does not arrive.

I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

I waited to hear from God and I never did.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .

But [in Blood Meridian] McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.

Red Planet”, James Wood

Critic James Wood was unkind in his estimation of Blood Meridian. He demanded a theodicy from McCarthy—never McCarthy’s intention—and then failed to attend to any evidence in the novel that would indicate the possibility of resistance to unrepentant Darwinian malice, to an illiterate taste for mindless violence.

I don’t know if Wood has written on the latest, not last, but close-to-last, novel from McCarthy. The only review I’ve read was a short tweet from a contemporary Irish writer whose latest novel I very-much admired. He did not think The Passenger was good. I believe he wrote that it was, in fact, very bad. I really loved The Passenger, and when I finally get this last little riff out of my system, I might even read some reviews.

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of a sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

In the end, she had said, there will be nothing that cannot be simulated. And this will be the final abridgment of privilege. This is the world to come. Not some other. The only alternate is the surprise in those antic shapes burned into the concrete.

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

The final moments of The Passenger, particularly Alicia Western’s words (via Bobby’s memory) seem to echo the gnostic dream that is the epilogue of Blood Meridian. Her apocalyptic final line (again, via Bobby’s consciousness) evokes the consequences of the atomic bomb, a new original sin of creation: “My father’s latterday petroglyphs and the people upon the road naked and howling.”

Alicia chooses to erase herself from the world, while Bobby stays in it, lives. The final moments of The Passenger point to a sliver of metaphysical hope:

He knew on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty with him into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly on his pallet in an unknown tongue.

You have to carry the fire.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy.


Coin toss (No Country for Old Men)

Read an Excerpt from Cormac McCarthy’s Script for The Counselor

The New Yorker has published an excerpt of Cormac McCarthy’s script for The Counselor, a film directed by Ridley Scott that will come out this fall.

An excerpt of the excerpt:

the kid rakes an object from under the paper into his helmet and puts down the paper and stands and puts the helmet under his arm and crosses the plaza to his bike and puts his foot over the bike and starts it and pulls his gloves from the helmet and lays them on the tank in front of him and pulls on the helmet and fastens the strap and then pulls on the gloves and kicks back the stand and pulls away into the traffic.

night. two-lane blacktop road through the high desert. A car passes and the lights recede down the long straight and fade out. A man walks out from the scrub cedars that line the road and stands in the middle of the road and lights a cigarette. He is carrying a roll of thin braided wire over one shoulder. He continues across the road to the fence. A tall metal pipe is mounted to one of the fence posts and at the top—some twenty feet off the ground—is a floodlight. The man pushes the button on a small plastic sending unit and the light comes on, flooding the road and the man’s face. He turns it off and walks down the fence line a good hundred yards to the corner of the fence and here he drops the coil of wire to the ground and takes a flashlight from his back pocket and puts it in his teeth and takes a pair of leather gloves from his belt and puts them on. Then he loops the wire around the corner post and pulls the end of the wire through the loop and wraps it about six times around the wire itself and tucks the end several times inside the loop and then takes the wire in both hands and hauls it as tight as he can get it. Then he takes the coil of wire and crosses the road, letting out the wire behind him. In the cedars on the far side, a flatbed truck is parked with the bed of the truck facing the road. There is an iron pipe at the right rear of the truck bed mounted vertically in a pair of collars so that it can slide up and down and the man threads the wire through a hole in the pipe and pulls it taut and stops it from sliding back by clamping the wire with a pair of vise grips. Then he walks back out to the road and takes a tape measure from his belt and measures the height of the wire from the road surface. He goes back to the truck and lowers the iron pipe in its collars and clamps it in place again with a threaded lever that he turns by hand against the vertical rod. He goes out to the road and measures the wire again and comes back and wraps the end of the wire through a heavy three-inch iron ring and walks to the front of the truck, where he pulls the wire taut and wraps it around itself to secure the ring at the end of the wire and then pulls the ring over a hook mounted in the side rail of the truck bed. He stands looking at it. He strums the wire with his fingers. It gives off a deep resonant note. He unhooks the ring and walks the wire to the rear of the truck until it lies slack on the ground and in the road. He lays the ring on the truck bed and goes around and takes a walkie-talkie from a work bag in the cab of the truck and stands in the open door of the truck, listening. He checks his watch by the dome light in the cab.

First Page of an Early Draft of Blood Meridian


Nice article at Slate on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, touching on how “all the way to galley proof in 1984, McCarthy whittled Blood Meridian down into the lean nightmare we now know. He cut whole characters and became more and more sparing of his description of the ones that remained. This was nowhere more pronounced than with the character of the kid, the nameless ruffian and pseudo-protagonist of the tale.” Good stuff. (Thanks to Garrett for alerting me to it).


Road Movie

“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes” — John LeCarre

Movies rarely compare favorably to the books from which they are adapted and almost never surpass them. Still, film adaptations of books can be fantastic if handled by the right director–take Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón for example, whose brilliant films Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (adaptations of books by P.D James and J.K. Rowling, respectively) convey richly imagined, engrossing worlds. Cuarón’s films join a small stable of adaptations that live up to–if not surpass–the books on which they are based. Most great film adaptations turn good genre fiction into great art. However, great literature doesn’t usually fare so well. Geniuses like Kubrick and Coppola have reconfigured airport reading like Stephen King’s The Shining and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather into cinematic masterpieces, but has anyone ever done justice to Melville or Hemingway or Hawthorne or Fitzgerald (of the four attempts at translating Gatsby to the screen, the 1974 Coppola-produced effort is arguably the best, but consider how short it falls of capturing Fitzgerald’s vision)? Which brings up the question: just how good, bad, or indifferent will the upcoming movie adaptation of Cormac McCarhy’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Road be? We thought we’d navigate the pros and cons here.

What The Road film adaptation has going for it:

The director: Australian director John Hillcoat’s 2005 feature film debut The Proposition captured the bloody violence and moral ambiguity of a world alienated from civilization. We loved the movie, and not enough people have seen it. The tone Hillcoat achieved in The Proposition seems well matched to McCarthy’s grim vision.

The producer: Nick Wechsler’s list of films includes Sex, Lies, and Videotape, The Player, Requiem for a Dream, 25th Hour, and Drugstore Cowboy–so it seems like he knows how to sit back and let a filmmaker create art without trying to, you know, have a massive Hollywood hit.

The leading man: Viggo Mortensen as the father seems like a great choice. Mortensen brought depth to the role he’s most famous for–Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy–something of a feat when you consider most of his screen time was devoted to scowling, brooding, or chopping up orcs. He was fantastic in the films he did with David Cronenberg, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (his bathhouse fight scene is unbelievable). Mortensen’s a published author who started his own publishing house, Perceval Press, so he probably understands the literary gravity of The Road.

The story: Anyone who’s read The Road knows that it’s a sad and moving and strangely beautiful take on one of the most hackneyed devices of science fiction: the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

No Country for Old Men: The Coen brothers did a great job with No Country for Old Men.

Potential problem spots for The Road film adaptation:

The cast: We don’t know much about twelve year old Kodi Smit-McPhee who plays the son, but we do know that that is a major role. Let’s hope Kodi is more Jodie, less Jake Lloyd or (shiver) Dakota Fanning. However, Viggo’s had pretty positive things to say about him. Ringers Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce are also in there, but there aren’t too many other speaking parts in the book besides the father and the son, so it’s hard to predict what they’ll be doing–hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t fiddled with the story too much. Charlize Theron is also in the movie. The wife character showed up in a few dreamy flashbacks, but was more of a shadow than a fleshed out character; again, hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t chosen to expand the role to appease a wider demographic.

The story: Some of the best moments of The Road consist of the father’s inner monologues on memory and loss and very few directors can pull off a voice-over successfully (Terrence Malick is the only one who comes to mind right now). Of course, this problem of language is always the problem of movie adaptation.

All the Pretty Horses: Billy Bob Thornton’s leaden 2000 adaptation of the first of McCarthy’s “border trilogy” is pretty boring. I’ll admit that I’ve never finished the book, despite three attempts [ed. note: I finished the “border trilogy” in spring of ’09. Books are far, far, far superior to the film].

No Country for Old Men: Even though the Coens did a great job with No Country for Old Men, the book was still better than the movie–and No Country is, in some ways, McCarthy’s take on a genre novel, the crime procedural. In this sense, the Coens made a smart move, but they still couldn’t convey the depth and meaning of the book–again, much of it delivered via Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s inner monologues. Although The Road may appear to have genre fiction elements–namely, the tropes of post-apocalyptic sci-fi–to describe it as such would be a severe limitation, as would be to film it in such a manner.

The advance stills: Sure, they’re grim and bleak, but are they grim and bleak enough?

Also, why the stylized cart? If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean–the cart needs to be a grocery store cart, homeless style! Hang on–

–that’s better! (NB: images link to a gallery of advance images)

Does it seem worth seeing in the theater?

Yes. We’ll be carrying the fire on or around November 26th (and just in time for Thanksgiving!)

No Country for Old Men Reconsidered


On my Superlatives list at the end of last year, I awarded No Country for Old Men “Most Disappointing Film of 2007.” Here’s what I wrote:

Although it was by no means bad, I was disappointed in the Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. It was a good movie–Javier Badem was fantastic, great pacing and tone–but still it didn’t blow me away like, say, Fargo or Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing did. Ditto Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. Chalk it up to hyperbolic expectations, I guess. Maybe I need to watch these films again on DVD and reconsider.

Ok. So. I went back and watched No Country on DVD this weekend. One of my criteria for a great film is that it has to be great without the transfixing power of a huge screen and roaring sound system. The Lord of the Rings movies, for example, suffer greatly on TV; the epic magnitude is diminished, and you realize just how much the movies relied on the the modern movie screen. I still like them though. I just don’t think they work too well on small screens (god forbid you watch them on a phone). So how does No Country hold up?

I don’t think it fairs any worse, but I still have to argue that this movie is incredibly overrated. I’d read the book (listened to the audiobook, actually) before I’d seen the film the first time, and watching it again I was doubly-prepared for the film’s decidedly non-Hollywood ending (and non-Hollywood climax, to boot).

Oh, by the way, a few SPOILERS ARE COMING UP. Fair warning, right?

Ok. When I initially saw the film, many of the people of the audience were disappointed and angered at the end of the movie, including my mom’s cousin, a man in his sixties from South Carolina. My uncle zoned out at the end, during Tommy Lee Jones’s last speech. When the movie ended and we walked out of the theater, he asked me to explain what happened. He’d missed the end. Three young men overheard, came up, and started asking me questions– “Did that guy [Llewellyn Moss] die?” etc. My mom’s cousin summed up the way a lot of people probably felt about the end of this movie– “I didn’t like it that the bad guy got away and the good guy died. Why didn’t the Sheriff go get him?” That the film is deeply dissatisfying to our collective sense of justice is kind of a thematic point, and that’s not what bothers me about No Country–although I understand why it would bother many audience members.


The film omits the two scenes we ache to see–the initial massacre that sets events in motion, and the death of Llewellyn Moss. We barely get to identify Llewellyn’s body, in fact. The substitutions for these elisions all involve Anton Chigurh, who pretty much steals the show. His murder of a deputy at the beginning of the film enacts a sacrificial slaughter, a substitution for the greater violence of the drug massacre that we don’t witness. He murders Carson Wells, a silly and ultimately trivial character whose sense of self-importance is quickly put under erasure. Finally, he kills Carla Jean Moss, before becoming the victim of a random violent car accident. An accident–not a just punishment for the atrocities he’s committed. Despite the severe accident, Chigurh is able to get up and walk away; presumably, he will continue to wreak havoc. Before Chigurh leaves the screen he turns two boys against each other. They squabble over a bloodied piece of money, recapitulating the larger theme of the movie–an echo of Fargo–that greed is destructive. The message is not overstated, but plain nonetheless. So what’s wrong with this film? Nothing, really. It’s just not as good–and certainly not as profound–as everyone makes it out to be.

In the book, the third act rests mostly on the “old men”–Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a fellow sheriff, and Ellis, Ed Tom’s uncle. The film omits much of the book here, including a scene where Ed Tom visits another “old man”–Llewellyn’s father. The film also omits a key story from Ed Tom’s past, an act of cowardice in war. The Coens were right to leave much of this stuff out–there are too many monologues from Ed Tom as it is. Still, the titular point of the book becomes eclipsed, subsumed into Chigurh’s violence. Chigurh is a “new man,” part of what Ed Tom perceives as a new direction in our country–a violent and impersonal world he doesn’t belong in. Ed Tom fails to realize that the country was founded and maintained in many ways via impersonal violence, despite the fact that his own past–as well as the past of his family–is entrenched in this violence. His real problem is with the lack of clear, absolute morality, pure right and wrong, good and evil, an attitude best summed up with his assertion that once people quit saying “Ma’am and Sir,” everything else goes to hell. He brushes off Ellis when the old man tells him that the country has always been violent and difficult. The movie ends the same as the novel, with Ed Tom relating two dreams he had about his father.


The film ultimately fails to relate the depth of the novel, opting instead for a competent depiction of the surface tensions at work. The Coens accurately captures the “men doing stuff” aspect of McCormac’s writing without getting to any of the meaning behind it all. And that’s fine. The movie’s fine. It’s just not as great as everyone is pretending it is. Perhaps we’re all just so happy that the Coens have stepped up from their previous lightweight projects–The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty–that we feel the need to fawn all over No Country. Or maybe I’m wrong–maybe this is a profound thriller, a truly excellent movie; maybe this is the Coens’ masterpiece. But I think not.

No Country for Old Men–Cormac McCarthy


Didn’t we write about No Country for Old Men a week or two ago? Yeah, but that was for the upcoming Coen brothers movie; this post is a review of the audiobook, and I’m not creative enough to think of a different title.

So we listened to the entirety of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men over the course of two drives: from Jacksonville to St. Pete Beach and back. First off, as far as books-on-CD goes, this one was pretty good. Native Texan Tom Stechshulte manages to get all of the male characters spot on (the women in the novel sound kind of ridiculous though), and the action-filled plot, tight pacing, and simple sentences make for an easy-to-follow-while-driving listening experience (this is my number one criterion for an audiobook–you have to be able to follow the plot while navigating a road littered with truckers and asshole teenagers. F’r’instance, Faulkner’s short stories are almost impossible to follow in audiobook format).

Set in 1980, No Country for Old Men is the story of Llewellyn Moss, a Vietnam vet who stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad and a suitcase with 2.4 million dollars in it. Of course, he takes the money and runs. Assassin Chigurh is hot on his heels to collect the drug money, leaving a bloody wake of murder and chaos. Sheriff Bell, a WWII vet who first-person narrates the beginning of each section of the book, is also on the case, trying to track down Llewellyn before he gets himself killed.

The first five discs (of seven) of the book were excellent–an exercise in genre fiction–the crime-suspense novel–that transcends the limits of the genre’s tropes. McCarthy’s spare prose moves at just the right pace, with just the right amount of “literary” interjection. However, the end of the novel morphs (evolves or devolves?) into a meditation on war and the changing nature of America and the American people. McCarthy’s symbols and metaphors seem heavy-handed and downright clunky at times, and in the end, the book becomes something of a reflection on personal failures and regrets, and how these personal failures add up to national failures.

Perhaps because I was driving, and because I had been so involved with characters over the course of five compact discs who suddenly disappeared in the narrative, I was disappointed in the end. Perhaps if I had read the book instead of listening to it on compact disc while driving, I would have found the ending more profound, or even enjoyable. Who knows–reading books vs. listening to them is probably a subject for another post. I do think that the Coen brothers will make a fantastic movie out of this story–potentially on par with Fargo. We’ll see.

No Country for Old Men

I’ve been reading a lot of Faulkner lately. This has nothing to do with me liking Faulkner (I don’t) or thinking that he’s an American master (at this point, I’m convinced that he’s not. Rather, it seems that a few critics–notably Malcolm Cowley and Cleanth Brooks–decided either that a. Faulkner is really great and/or b. America needs a new master of literary fiction, and it might as well be Faulkner. It seems amazing to me that these two critics conned a whole generation into believing that someone whose books were so unbelievably poorly written was actually, like, a totally awesome and important writer). I’m taking a class that requires me to read Faulkner.

Anyway, over the course of my reading, I got to thinking that the Coen brothers, two guys that have made some of the best American films ever (masterful films, certainly) are fond of Faulkner: the flood in O Brother Where Art Thou? hearkens to Faulkner’s novella Old Man (as does the whole milieu of that film really), the slow southern grotesque of Blood Simple is pure Faulknerian, ditto the gloomy doom of The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the failed screenwriter W.P. Mayhew in Barton Fink is essentially a caricature of Faulkner during his days in Hollywood.

So well and anyway, the Coens have a new movie coming out, No Country for Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. Cormac McCarthy is often compared to Faulkner, though I have no idea why. They’re American? That’s it. They’re American. Like I said though, No Country for Old Men. Early reviews suggest that this is a return to form for the Coens, who have either been stumbling or just lazily cashing in lately (see: Intolerable Cruelty; The Ladykillers)–but we’ll have to wait until November to find out. For now, check out the trailer: