Cormac McCarthy had been on my mind when his death was announced. I was into S.A. Cosby's new novel All the Sinners Bleed and thinking about No Country for Old Men. An unimpeachable book, especially after its film adaptation. Ceaseless and addictive in a way that speaks to its origin as a screenplay. But what about its core sentiment? In the face of a seemingly unfounded, chaotic sort of evil, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell laments, essentially, that the country has become--or is at risk of becoming--unrecognizable. But unrecognizable to whom?
In All the Sinners Bleed, the small Virgian town of Charon is shocked by a series of unthinkable crimes and revelations about people everyone thought they knew. But as newly elected sheriff Titus Crown--the first black sheriff in Charon--knows, the town's "recent history was indeed relatively quiet, but the past held horrors and terrors that had moved into the realm of legend." This is no no country for old men for Titus, and should come as no real surprise to a town that still celebrates the confederacy, even though sixty percent of the population is black.
Cosby is a master of binds. In Blacktop Wasteland, the expectations and promises of American exceptionalism, or rising above your circumstances, are hampered by systemic deterrents. In Razorblade Tears, love for family is overwhelmed by hatred of lifestyle, which is then snarled in the want for vengeance. Here, as sheriff, Titus finds him an even tighter knot, living "in a no-man's land between people who believed in him, people who hated him because of his skin color, and people who believed he was a traitor to his race." When it's revealed that the victims of the serial murders he uncovers are black children, those binds are pulled tighter and tighter.
For Cosby, the simplicity of dividing lines belies the complexity of human nature. For better or worse, people are rarely what they seem. As the killer in All the Sinners Bleed wears a mask, so do most people in the community. Whether it's a front to hide inherited hatred, or one to conceal the effects of any number of life's hurts, everyone's hidden in some way. The crimes and their perpetrators are certainly the stuff of page-turners, but with Cosby, as with the best writers of the genre, crime is a means of disturbing the status quo, of drawing out truths, and, in true Scooby-Doo fashion, yanking off all masks to see who people really are.
How does the criminality Sheriff Bell feels helpless to curb differ from the abominable evil at the heart of the country's "good old days?" An evil that was graspable, knowable. Either overlooked or allowed, or fostered and encouraged. Prejudicial degradations and predations that were both systemic and overt. In fact, it remains a country for old men, old men who exert a generational influence that makes it difficult for the country to be for anyone else.