No Country For Old Men isn't an “amazing” book; it doesn't immediately stand out from the rest. Some books are completely unique: nothing will ever be quite like To Kill A Mockingbird, or Lolita, or Midnight's Children.
What I can say about Cormac McCarthy's ninth novel is that it is the perfect example of a really, really good book: the kind with a simple, elegant story (contemporary western) and outstanding writing (fascinating characters, wickedly paced plot, hypnotic narrative voice, and a painfully real message).
The marriage of skill and story can be a tricky, insufferable if done improperly, and I just finished two other books that are perfect examples of “improper”: Henry David Thoreau's Walden and James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer. These books were published in 1854 and 1841 respectively, so there is a huge difference of writing style, no two ways about it.
As such, I still recommend Walden: Thoreau's social critique is startlingly relevant, and his love of the natural world is no less passionate and believable 157 years later. It's worth reading for the “Brute Neighbors” chapter alone: the war of the red and black ant colonies is just plain epic. But for all his rich sentences, the man simply doesn't have a story to match his skill. The opening chapters do little more than set the stage for better scenes to come, and while the “Economy” chapter is admirably thorough, that whole section is largely a lesson in tedium.
On the other hand, you have The Deerslayer. Now it does have a story … sorta. But I find it severely lacking in the way of writing, and it's all Natty Bumppo's fault. His yammering outshouts the narrative voice, his sidetracking stalls the plot every time, and his lack of character arch spoils any chance of message or meaning. Natty only seems reasonable because the other two white men are bigger racists and sexists than he is, and once they leave the novel his doctrine is revealed for what it is: outdated. Of course, Mark Twain has covered this already.
You can imagine my joy upon finally picking up a book with chops. Each chapter of No Country For Old Men begins with some internal narration from Sheriff Bell, often a touching, unsettling blend of nostalgia and despair; from there, the story shifts to the violent swirl of the other characters. The setting is stark, the language is immediate, and the pacing is straightforward verging on the addictive. It reminds me of : a series of unremarkable actions described in sequence, except that McCarthy combines the mundane with spontaneous shoot-outs and bloody chases.
The book didn't receive universal acclaim, it's true: when interviewed by the A.V. Club, Harold Bloom condemns the novel's “apocalyptic moral judgments.” Brash of me, perhaps, but I have to disagree: I found the troubled soul of Ed Tom Bell to be essential to the story, coloring the racing action and the sparkling dialogue with a depth and fear that McCarthy's minimalist writing would otherwise lack. Too much doomsayer's disapproval is a bad thing, yes, but in the right quantities it can bring out the flavor in other narrative styles, much the way that a liberal spritzing of hot sauce improves chilled meat or vegetables. Again, the novel isn't “amazing” - it's nothing like Rushdie's exquisite curry, or Nabokov's powerful borscht, or Lee's sublime blueberry pie. But with such fresh ingredients and his own truly special sauce, it must be said that Cormac McCarthy can make a really, really good burger.