Llewelyn Moss, the hero of Cormac McCarthy's new novel, is out hunting antelope near the Rio Grande when he comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong: three Broncos full of corpses and heroin. Not far off lies another corpse and a satchel full of $100 bills. Taking the money, Moss sets in motion a plot that involves vengeful drug dealers, an aging, ruminative sheriff and a hired killer who's so evil he'll kill on a coin toss. After that, not much happens in "No Country for Old Men" besides killing: the body count hits double digits by page 95.

In this novel, his first since "Cities of the Plain" in 1998, McCarthy has produced a brutish tale reminiscent of his 1985 noir Western "Blood Meridian." But the baroque prose that counterpointed that earlier novel's violence has been replaced here with a far starker narration that reads like a screenplay for a straight-to-cable thriller. Or so it seems at first. Because the one thing you can depend on in a McCarthy novel is that you can't depend on anything.

As dark as any book he has ever written, "No Country for Old Men" is also his most plain-spoken novel, or at least his most talkative. Sheriff Bell is too fond of holding forth on the evils of abortion, euthanasia and nose rings. And he's not the only character who delivers too many speeches on the benighted times we live in--as if anyone who's ever read a McCarthy novel doubted that this writer nursed anything but a low opinion of human affairs.

It's humor--of a decidedly dark sort--that saves this story. Staring at the carnage in the abandoned cars in the desert, a deputy says, "It's a mess, ain't it Sheriff?" The sheriff replies, "If it ain't it'll do till a mess gets here." This could be a mere Andy-and-Barney exchange except for its hideous context. It's jolting, and it's meant to be. We've read and seen this story before, we think, but just when we sit back for the familiar twists and turns, dumb luck turns out to be no luck at all, good does not triumph and the sweethearts aren't reunited in the last reel. What really takes a beating is our comfort with the cliches of pop-culture bloodshed. In this book, violence and grief are triumphant, and it's terrifying. The bleakness of McCarthy's vision speaks for itself. Or it would if he'd let it.