Cormac McCarthy. The Road.
Cormac McCarthy's seventh novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape of ashes, relentless cold, silence and terrifying emptiness. The only colors are grey and black. The sun cannot be seen; the difference between day and night is the difference between bleakness and impenetrability. These two words also describe the existential position of the two central characters in The Road: the world they live in is staggeringly bleak and perilous, and the purpose of such a life, the purpose of a world in which apocalypse can happen, is as impenetrable as God's heart, if there is a God, and if He has a heart. These are questions McCarthy has addressed before in his fiction, and not in a way to bring us comfort.
Reduced to its narrative essence, this novel is the story of a road trip. Two unnamed males head south, map in hand, no particular destination in mind except the ocean and the end of the continent. What could be more American? Yet this road trip is like a nightmare from which the father and his young son cannot awaken; and one can imagine identical roads and landscapes over the world through which fathers and sons or sisters and brothers slowly move at the same time, trying to hold onto life for one more day, yet questioning why anyone should want to do that. (Or perhaps one cannot imagine too many women making the trip; as is the case in McCarthy's other fiction, this is a man's story. In a post-apocalyptic world in which brutality and ruthlessness guarantee success, men seem better chanced for survival.) Reading this novel almost at a sitting, thinking that it is like the first Mad Max movie, stripped of its cartoony pop culture sheen (entertainment wearing an apocalyptic mask), that it is like Samuel Beckett stripped of his humor, thinking too that The Road reminds us of the fragility of everything man has built, I wondered whether the cold, long shadow of 9/11 didn't also shape McCarthy's narrative.
We never learn what catastrophe has struck the world, but the ashes, the incinerated woods, the human bodies melted into the roads, the complete extinction of all species, the single sentence devoted to the signal event--"a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions"--point clearly to nuclear holocaust. Many readers might think the world is more likely to end in a whimper--extinction of species, including our own, more probably to be occasioned by global warming than ICBMs--and others might question whether plant life wouldn't quickly reestablish itself, as it did in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these are small quibbles. McCarthy's story has its own compelling logic. Mostly what father and son encounter on the road is terrible. What makes this trip bearable for the reader are admiration for the father's survival skills and, now and then, the discovery of a windfall: food and water in a never-used bomb shelter, more in a grand old Southern house. It would probably be a mistake to see these things as signs of Providence.
Critics have sometimes complained that, because McCarthy does not express his characters' interiority, it is difficult to like or identify with them. That is not the case here. The father does not think about the past, does not think very much about his and his son's perilous circumstances, because to do so would make survival less likely. "The right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death." The son and the father talk now and then of factual matters--when will we get there? what happened here?--but their dialogue is as spare (and as powerful) as the landscape. Yet the reader cares very much what happens to these two: they are, as the father keeps reassuring his son, "the good guys"; they would not cannibalize others in order to survive. The relationship between the main characters has the kind of closeness and love and trust that awful adversity can shape. The father's responsibility is to save the son--to scavenge for food and supplies, to fend off murderers and worse--while the boy's is to preserve their humanity.
McCarthy manages to communicate these things briefly, in an almost unspoken way. In fact, language might well go the way it goes in The Road: used almost entirely as a tool for survival, like a scavenged bottle for water. The boy does not want to hear stories. In one of the more haunting passages of the book, the father thinks about the disappearance of language: "The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat.... The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever." What does not "wink out," however, are the simple ritual exchanges of father and son, repeated dozens and dozens of times in this novel, establishing that they are safe, that they will be "okay."
McCarthy's prose style has been compared to most often to that of Faulkner's. In this novel his prose more nearly resembles Hemingway's. His sentences are short and terse, emphasizing fact and action, how things are done. Now and then they burn themselves into memory: "This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man's brains out of his hair. That is my job." Sights along the journey that terrorize the boy also stay in the reader's mind: as horrifying as these things are, we find ourselves saying, this is the way it would be, because we are the way we are.
The Road is a searing, powerful novel. Its last paragraph, offering a glimpse of paradise in language at once simple and lyrical (a lyricism that is rightly almost absent from this work), is alone priceless. It carries a clear moral vision and gives to McCarthy's book the weight of parable: this, he seems to say, is something we must learn--in our hearts, in our synapses and muscles and souls.