by Peter Byrne
Cormac McCarthy: The Road, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006, ISBN-13:978-0-330-44753-9(HB), 241 pages.
Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They'll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. (Page 48)
(Swans - November 19, 2007) So the man's wife told him before she committed suicide. And she was right. Had he faced reality, he would have killed himself and, out of mercy, his son as well.
Dilemmas of the sort can only take on genuine urgency in a novel whose story mires us deep in the conditions that lead to such stark choices. Grimly efficient, Cormac McCarthy does just that in The Road. Only once does he demand suspension of disbelief. We are asked to swallow something enormous, but it's strangely consonant with our third millennium anxieties: "The frailty of everything revealed at last." (Page 24)
Both the New York Times and Chicago Tribune's reviews of another recent novel, Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, refer it back to The Road, as if the 2000s have found their true literary form in the novel of the post-apocalypse. The world, seen from the section of the southeast United States where the story unfolds, has undergone a planetary catastrophe. A great singeing wiped out most of humanity and nullified its mechanical contrivances.
Survivors of the calamity live on by scavenging usable detritus, including weaker human beings. There are no fish in the sea or anything besides a few mushrooms growing on the land. The conflagration has left the earth covered with ash and soot, which blows and drifts like black snow, suggesting the fall of a final curtain. Facemasks, like everything else, have to be improvised.
Two characters, man and boy, father and son, find themselves in this landscape an unspecified number of years after the disaster. McCarthy hasn't put them in science fiction. After the upheaval, nature's laws continue to hold sway. The two move in conditions than hold true in our own lives. They must eat, shelter from elements, resist sickness and fight off dangers from human animals, the other species having been decimated or consumed.
The boy's mother became pregnant after the cataclysmic event, and his strangeness and pathos results from being the child of a two-fold catastrophe, the fatal blow to the planet and the suicide of his mother. She understood that the protective instincts she'd lost were alive in her husband and that he would safeguard the child until the man too had, as she said, "to face" the terrible reality she had rationally accepted.
The road is a strip of asphalt, essentially intact, occasionally obstructed by wreckage or deformed by the fires that still rage. While molten, one stretch entrapped fleeing citizens who are still stuck there turned into mummies. Corpses keep confronting the man and boy on their trek. There was no one to bury them and now turned to leather they peek out from unexpected places. The only hint of humor in the book comes from these unfortunates, as in the case of the man who was rocking on his front porch when the big bang occurred and still sits like a dandy beneath his straw hat.
Cannibalism is the other macabre reality that pervades the novel. It has become the surest way of survival -- for the consumer. Pregnant women are herded behind traveling bands, as tribes used to be followed by their livestock. The division of bad and good people has become that between the eaters and the non-eaters of human flesh. The man and the boy are firmly opposed to the practice. They intend to die in a hidden spot if overcome by illness or if suicide has to be chosen.
The father has concentrated his instinct for survival into a resolution to keep moving southward with the boy, though he's not at all sure that the south once attained will bring them more safety or well-being than any place else. But movement itself is vital. Man has truly become a scourge for man. To be perceived by his fellows can be lethal. When the father has to fire one of his few remaining bullets at a marauder attacking the boy, the gang members are quick to boil up their dead comrade for supper.
Father and son proceed on foot pushing a shopping cart full of their meager store of canned goods, heirlooms from the previous epoch. The relics of the former life they come across, including whole dead cities and towns, are burnt out or already plundered. Fire has regained its primal importance and houses have been dismantled for kindling. For a while the man has a precious lighter that he stokes with the dregs of gasoline pumps. Occasionally he finds something useful that's been overlooked: a box cutter, a candle end or some rancid nuts to add to their food store.
McCarthy's accomplishment depends on his orchestrating of detail. The story itself is as linear as the road. The point of view remains the father's. Brief flashbacks in his mind sketch in a skeletal back-story. But neither thoughts of the past nor troubled dreams interfere more than momentarily with the painful progress of the walkers. How they manage their journey physically and the words between them on the way constitute the thrust of the novel.
There's something quintessentially American about the ingenuity of the man as he puts the rubble of a smashed civilization together, do-it-yourself fashion, in order to live one more day. He's a Robinson Crusoe, enriched by a tradition of home-improvement supply stores. But he hasn't fallen among hapless natives, only people like himself, vivid illustrations of Hobbes's, "Man is a wolf to man."
McCarthy must be as practical as his deft character. (In fact his personal biography recounts his exploits as a one-man construction team.) He convinces because he follows that able pair of hands up close. We watch him make a lamp of old crankcase oil with a gasoline wick. He uses a window screen to sift rat turds out of the bottom of a sack of cornmeal before baking cakes on a piece of tin.
But there's something even more American about the father's mindset. The die is cast, the game is up, there's no way out. Yet he can't drop a kind of Boy Scout discipline and forges ahead in hope in spite of the hopelessness of the situation. This is hardly a Greco-Roman concept of virtue but does save both their lives for the length of the novel and gets them south to their goal where they may be worse off.
The shock to humanity and nature has been so great that there is no rebuilding or recovery, and consequently no future in the offing. Curiously, the absence of tomorrow kills off the past. When the father picks up an Indian arrowhead or an antique Spanish coin, he realizes there's no point in telling the boy about them. Memory too becomes pointless. To live is to scratch for food and to keep hidden.
In this existence the determination of the father to bring his son through and his immense love for the boy becomes a light in the darkness. It can be a cruel love. The hardship makes the boy want to give up. He'd like simply to join his mother in death. His pain is not only physical. His entry into life in the aftermath of universal ruin has left him ultra sensitive and a strange concentrate of everything that's good about the human race. He's a throwback to a time when loving your neighbor didn't mean your own destruction. He's deeply pained when his father won't let him share what food they have with the pathetic death-bound creatures they come across. Those people will perish anyway, his practical parent tells him, and we haven't enough for ourselves.
As civilization crumbles, blood cults appear and religious delusions multiply. "Weirding out," becomes the norm. The father isn't immune. He sees his guardianship as God-commanded. He imagines his son, unlike himself, absorbed in thoughts of beauty and goodness, "things he could no longer think of." (Page 109) He's half convinced the blond child embodies a new deity for humanity's final hours. The two develop a fantasy about "carrying the fire," which is simply the flame of human decency.
The boy dwells on other children he's never known, trying to identify with them and to imagine the normal life he's never had. The man, overwhelmed by pity, tells him stories of what life used to be. But does the boy believe or only indulge him? The father embroiders to catch the boy's imagination, as his own soul goes sick to think that nothing but an early death can be in store for his child. The eerie and potent poetry of the novel resides very much in this dream of the old life seen against its cities in ruin and broken artifacts. When rifling a midden, the father discovers an unopened can of Coca Cola and offers it to the boy as a childhood joy he's never known. His own pleasure is cut short, however, by the sensation that he's setting out something like the last meal for a condemned man.
Thomas Hobbes described a similar life, borne up by no civil structures whatsoever, as "nasty, brutish and short." Yet, though the boy hasn't got beyond adolescence and the father dies in the last pages, no nastiness has marred what's between them ("each the other's world entire," Page 5) and they are closer to being a child saint and an honorable man than brutes. Perhaps this is the only flicker of light in a harsh, noble book.
This is Cormac McCarthy's tenth novel over a forty-year career notable for its integrity and pursuit of privacy. Critics and readers only markedly warmed to him in the 1990s, often for the wrong reasons, with his Border Trilogy that on the surface seems merely another Western adventure story. In fact the cruel world he invokes in The Road can also be felt in his earlier books beneath their more adorned and less biblical style. Whatever one thinks of contemporary America, it has spawned a great novelist.
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