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Cormac McCarthy's new novel simmers with murder, relentless evil, and foreboding

No Country for Old Men
By Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 309 pp., $24.95

Cormac McCarthy's dark and careful novel is sprawled across the southwestern borderlands of Texas, territory nobody much travels and where there's not a lot to write home about anyway. The towns there are Uvalde and Sanderson and even a little place called Blewett, which ought to have made it into this story for sheer irony, but didn't. It's the part of Texas that lies west of San Antonio and east of Big Bend, where summer days can crest a hundred degrees and where the local boys wear boots in spite of all that heat. When anything happens besides church socials or a horse sale or a surprising amount of rain, it's usually bad news.

At least that's the feel of things in ''No Country for Old Men," which from its opening pages carries a stripped-down, doom-soaked prose that scares you even before anybody rough shows up. This is McCarthy's ninth novel, and such stark foreboding is familiar to all his fiction, elegiac in mood but often cataclysmic in the end. In his Border Trilogy -- ''All the Pretty Horses," ''The Crossing," and ''Cities of the Plain" -- he managed to summon up the best and worst of man, though the land was evoked with enough reverential beauty to justify the sorrowful tale within. ''No Country for Old Men" accomplishes a similar feat, its down-and-out chase story anchored by the Faulknerian reflections of a decent-hearted county sheriff named Ed Tom Bell.

Sheriff Bell is the sane and kindly counterpart to the evil that exists in this story, spread out over his provinces and seeming, at first glance, like a straightforward drug deal gone bad. But evil in this case has a name, too, and it's Anton Chigurh -- a psychopathic killer whose personal code of honor insists that he kill anyone who crosses him. Even less forgettable is the weapon he employs to settle his accounts: a cattle stun gun with a pneumatic rig that he fires into his enemies' skulls. It's a little like being taken down by a Black & Decker drill.

Bell's deputy is the first of Chigurh's casualties we meet; it happens on Page 5, which gives you an idea of the pace of mayhem in the novel. Chigurh was a hired gun in a heroin exchange between a Mexican cartel and an American businessman; now several bodies are left rotting in the sun, the sheriff's territory is overrun by Drug Enforcement Administration agents and state troopers, and Chigurh is in the wind. The young innocent that forms the apex of this classic triangle is a 36-year-old welder named Llewelyn Moss -- a crack rifle shot who, hunting antelope one day, runs across Chigurh's carnage and a satchel containing more than $2 million.

Moss does the human thing, rather than the honorable or wise one: He cuts and runs -- sending his young wife, Carla Jean, into hiding, and setting up a zigzagging, riveting frontier tale of fate and flight. But Moss's humanity is both his saving grace and his tragic flaw. Because he tries to save a stranger with a drink of water, it's not long until Chigurh knows who took that satchel full of money and where he's going. ''There's no one alive on this planet that's ever had even a cross word with him," says one man about Chigurh. ''They're all dead. These are not good odds."

No, and they don't improve as the distance shortens between predator and prey. The American drug lord brings in a man named Wells -- a former lieutenant colonel from Special Forces ops in Vietnam -- to track down Chigurh; by now we have four men in cars and cheap motels along the lonely highways of southwestern Texas, and every encounter gets us closer to something horrible. McCarthy's signature dialogue appears without speaker identities or quotation marks, and this quirk actually makes the narrative more ominous -- it's so leaden flat, so brutally without frills or excess, that it has a cinematic quality, as though you're eavesdropping upon the characters' dialogue. By the time the first main characters start to drop, it's almost a relief to exhale.

''No Country for Old Men" takes its title from Yeats's ''Sailing to Byzantium," and the line tips its hat to death and to the work of the soul as much as to any lesser geography. McCarthy is not shy about reaching toward grander themes; there's something apocalyptic about this novel from the outset, and Sheriff Bell's wife -- an implausibly noble woman named Loretta -- is cheerfully reading the Book of Revelation by novel's end. One could even imagine McCarthy's main cast as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Chigurh easily has the delusional hubris to perceive himself an Antichrist. But the real scourge here is heroin, the inevitable battle one between Chigurh and Sheriff Bell -- between the old ways of righteousness and a new path of desolation and mindless destruction. It's no accident that every man who counts in this novel is a veteran of some sort -- of Vietnam, of special ops, of the European theater -- and that some of the wounds brought forth now were inflicted long ago on other battlefields. ''Vietnam was just the icin on the cake," an uncle tells Sheriff Bell. ''You cant go to war without God. I don't know what is goin to happen when the next one comes."

McCarthy's prose is so thunderous and bare at once that it can occasionally venture toward affected nonsense: ''That god lives in silence who has scoured the following land with salt and ash." But at its best, ''No Country for Old Men" is a simple, heartsore story: one of an old Army salt with a daughter he misses and a wife he loves, and a mean-eyed killer who moves with the force of RoboCop. The suspense of this conflict is heightened by McCarthy's deadpan patience -- he describes every detail of every scene, without an adjective in sight -- and the essential fact that we have no idea who will triumph in the end. In that way the story McCarthy tells is as old as the land: At night it turns into someplace else, cold and dark and full of stars. But the next day the canyons and creek beds that define the place are still there. They probably always will be.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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