The phrase “million dollar penny dreadful” — John Updike’s memorable description of Foucault’s Pendulum — Umberto Eco’s encyclopedic pastiche of conspiracy theories — suggests something of the charm and simplicity of pulp fiction, without belying the fact that sometimes genre writing can express views on the larger issues of life and death with a drama and clarity often lacking in contemporary “middlebrow” literature.
“What makes Iago Evil? some people ask. I never ask.” So goes the great opening line from Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Iago is, along with Milton’s Satan, one of the great literary characterizations of evil. Iago’s genius lies in being able to cannily manipulate events and people in his environment to his advantage, while Satan’s metaphysical rebellion reaches down to a deeper plane, right to the core of the Western world’s foundational myths.
For the most part Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is a superficial and slick thriller, but it on occasion it rises to the heights of — or, more properly, descends to the depths of — a kind of American negative sublime. Here is the first glimpse we have in the novel that Anton Chigurh (perhaps pronounced “Chigger,” like the biting mite common in the U.S. South) is more than just a criminal and in fact is an embodiment of a deeper evil, a dark force for which he provides human agency. Although Chigurh seems at times an avatar of pure evil, at others he appears as a representative of a kind of primordial chaos that goes beyond good and evil. The scene below shows Chigurh as expressive of a kind of Iago-like “malign motiveless malignancy.”
He crossed the Pecos River just north of Sheffield Texas and took route 349 south. When he pulled into the filling station at Sheffield it was almost dark. A long red twilight with doves crossing the highway heading south toward some ranch tanks. He got change from the proprietor and made a phone call and filled the tank and went back in and paid.
You all gettin any rain up your way? the proprietor said.
Which way would that be?
I seen you was from Dallas.
Chigurh picked his change up off the counter. And what business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo?
I didnt mean nothin by it.
You didnt mean nothing by it.
I was just passin the time of day.
I guess that passes for manners in your cracker view of things.
Well sir, I apologized. If you dont want to accept my apology I dont know what else I can do for you.
How much are these?
I said how much are these.
Chigurh unfolded a dollar onto the counter. The man rang it up and stacked the change before him the way a dealer places chips. Chigurh hadnt taken his eyes from him. The man looked away. He coughed. Chigurh opened the plastic package of cashews with his teeth and doled a third part of them into his palm and stood eating.
Will there be somethin else? the man said.
I dont know. Will there?
Is there somethin wrong?
Is that what you’re asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?
The man turned away and put his fist to his mouth and coughed again. He looked at Chigurh and he looked away. He looked out the window at the front of the store. The gas pumps and the car sitting there. Chigurh ate another small handful of the cashews.
Will there be anything else?
You’ve already asked me that.
Well I need to see about closin.
See about closing.
What time do you close?
Now. We close now.
Now is not a time. What time do you close.
Generally around dark. At dark.
Chigurh stood slowly chewing. You dont know what you’re talking about, do you?
I said you dont know what you’re talking about do you.
I’m talkin about closin. That’s what I’m talkin about.
What time do you go to bed.
You’re a bit deaf, arent you? I said what time do you go to bed.
Well. I’d say around nine-thirty. Somewhere around nine-thirty.
Chigurh poured more cashews into his palm. I could come back then, he said.
We’ll be closed then.
That’s all right.
Well why would you be comin back? We’ll be closed.
You said that.
Well we will.
You live in that house behind the store?
Yes I do.
You’ve lived here all your life?
The proprietor took a while to answer. This was my wife’s father’s place, he said. Originally.
You married into it.
We lived in Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family there. In Temple. We come out here about four years ago.
You married into it.
If that’s the way you want to put it.
I dont have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.
Well I need to close now.
Chigurh poured the last of the cashews into his palm and wadded the little bag and placed it on the counter. He stood oddly erect, chewing.
You seem to have a lot of questions, the proprietor said. For somebody that dont want to say where it is they’re from.
What’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss?
I said what’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss.
I dont know. Folks dont generally bet on a coin toss. It’s usually more like just to settle somethin.
What’s the biggest thing you ever saw settled?
I dont know.
Chigurh took a twenty-five cent piece from his pocket and flipped it spinning into the bluish glare of the fluorescent lights overhead. He caught it and slapped it onto the back of his forearm just above the bloody wrappings. Call it, he said.
Just call it.
Well I need to know what it is we’re callin here.
How would that change anything?
The man looked at Chigurh’s eyes for the first time. Blue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones. You need to call it, Chigurh said. I cant call it for you. It wouldnt be fair. It wouldnt even be right. Just call it.
I didnt put nothin up.
Yes you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didnt know it. You know what the date is on this coin?
It’s nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here. And I’ve got my hand over it. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.
I dont know what it is I stand to win.
In the blue light the man’s face was beaded thinly with sweat. He licked his upper lip.
You stand to win everything, Chigurh said. Everything.
You aint makin any sense, mister.
Chigurh uncovered the coin. He turned his arm slightly for the man to see. Well done, he said.
He picked the coin from his wrist and handed it across.
What do I want with that?
Take it. It’s your lucky coin.
I dont need it.
Yes you do. Take it.
The man took the coin. I got to close now, he said.
Dont put it in your pocket.
Dont put it in your pocket.
Where do you want me to put it?
Dont put it in your pocket. You wont know which one it is.
Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?
Chigurh cupped his hand and scooped his change from the counter into his palm and put the change in his pocket and turned and walked out the door. The proprietor watched him go. Watched him get into the car. The car started and pulled off from the gravel apron onto the highway south. The lights never did come on. He laid the coin on the counter and looked at it. He put both hands on the counter and just stood leaning there with his head bowed.