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  • "Anything Can Be an Instrument":Misuse Value and Rugged Consumerism in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men
  • Raymond Malewitz (bio)

The creative relationship between men and the man-made objects that populate their worlds grounds the aesthetic project of Cormac McCarthy's Western novels. In The Crossing, for example, the muzzle that Billy Parham fashions from a paloverde tree and rope serves as the material intermediary between Parham and the she-wolf that he traps, enabling a communion of sorts between the young boy and the last vestiges of a disappearing wild. John Grady Cole, the romantic hero of All the Pretty Horses, recalls his grandfather's stories of Native Americans as he gazes upon telegraph poles early in the novel. In their ongoing attempts to disrupt communication between white settlers, "the Comanche would cut the wires and splice them back with horse-hair" (11), a symbolic triumph of the improvisational over the technological that colors Cole's subsequent journey through the surveyed and fenced enclosures of the Western desert. Along similar lines, in Blood Meridian, Judge Holden establishes his status as the "suzerain" of nature (198) through his interactions with objects—the chief example being his creation of gunpowder from urine and volcanic sulfur. Within McCarthy's nostalgic novels, these instances of material manipulation and creation resonate with older, mythic notions of American identity. Despite their clear differences, Parham, John Grady Cole, and the Judge are all self-made and self-sustaining men who would feel quite at home in the nineteenth-century literary worlds of Natty Bumppo, Huck Finn, or Henry David Thoreau. Each character resists the modern world of economic [End Page 721] interdependence by building tools from natural resources and living off the land like the mythic Native Americans in Cole's grandfather's, James Fennimore Cooper's, or Tom Sawyer's stories.

With varying degrees of success, critics have begun to explore the tensions between McCarthy's fictional world of material self-creation and the realities of American economic development that have always been masked by this American myth. In such studies, McCarthy's nostalgic, rugged-individual aesthetic testifies to the departure of artisanal forms of production and the subsequent arrival of industrial capitalism's anarchic world of commodities.

A clear example of this critical tendency and its accompanying strengths and weaknesses can be found in David Holloway's The Late Modernism of Cormac McCarthy. Following Vereen Bell's seminal commentary on Blood Meridian, Holloway begins the third chapter of his important study with an extended discussion of David Brown's shotgun. Brown, a member of the fictionalized (though historically based) Glanton gang, acquires the shotgun on one of the gang's violent forays through the American West in search of aboriginal scalps. To improve the weapon, he visits a San Diego farrier to have the barrel cut down but is summarily refused. As McCarthy's prose lovingly details, the farrier's reasons are obvious: it is a beautiful weapon.

There was a raised center rib between the barrels and inlaid in gold the maker's name, London. There were two platinum bands in the patent breech and the locks and the hammers were chased with scrollwork cut deeply in the steel and there were partridges engraved at either end of the maker's name there. The purple barrels were welded up from triple skelps and the hammered iron and steel bore a watered figure like the markings of some alien and antique serpent, rare and beautiful and lethal, and the wood was figured with a deep red feather grain at the butt and held a small springloaded silver capbox in the toe.


Clearly, this is no simple weapon. In its combination of functional precision and aesthetic beauty, the shotgun recalls the shield of Achilles and all of its successors; it is "a symbol of an order of being, aesthetic and economic, that [Brown's] whole existence denies" (Bell 117). Brown's request and subsequent decision to cut down the [End Page 722] barrels himself becomes for Holloway "a parabolic act of desecration, a figural erasing of craft labor from the weapon" that leaves "the particularity of the gun very much...