“Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony.”
In one of his rare interviews several years back, Cormac McCarthy suggested that writers who are not preoccupied with death are simply “not serious.” Chaucer might have objected, of course, not to mention Cervantes, Austen, or Swift. But, by his own standard, McCarthy’s new novel, The Road, is about as serious as they come. Death, especially violent death, has always been his métier. Now he offers his readers a novel in which death seems to have utterly routed the opposition and taken no prisoners: a gruesome yet mesmerizing vision of a world—our world—given over to death in the guise of what appears to be nuclear winter, a world of stupefying cold and drifting clouds of smoke and ash.
Dozens of novels dealing with the theme of nuclear holocaust have been written over the last half-century. None with which I am familiar comes even remotely close to the gut-wrenching realism of The Road. Much of the novel’s power depends on its stylistic austerity, its undeviating focus on the desperate plight of its two central characters: a nameless father and son, traveling south on foot out of the devastation and horror of unnamed northern parts, through mountains where forest fires still burn, across the coastal plain to the sea, in the dim hope that there they might find warmth and some hope of survival. Anything that might distract our attention from this terrifying pilgrimage and the father’s grim determination to keep his son alive is stripped away. No attempt is made to account for the political events that precipitated this seemingly planetary holocaust. The father remembers only a “long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” Some years, perhaps a decade, have passed. Food supplies have been exhausted, and “murder is everywhere upon the land.” Cannibal “blood cults” roam the highways, and “the cities [are] held by cores of blackened looters . . . carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell.” While it is possible that McCarthy conceived this novel as a prophetic warning against the environmental horrors that an all-out (or even limited) nuclear war might bring, it seems to me unlikely that this was his primary concern. On the contrary, the destruction of the earth and of human civilization is portrayed here as something fated, as the inevitable and long-prepared outcome of the violence that inheres not only in the hearts of men but in the very nature of things.
Yet, in spite of (or, perhaps, in part, because of) this bleak fatality, The Road is achingly tender in its depiction of the sacrificial love of the father for his only son. In fact, the father (sometimes referred to simply as “the man”) is already dying, his lungs poisoned with toxins, his chronic cough growing more ominous with every mile that they journey. It would be easier for him to find a secluded place to die in peace, but he is driven by a love that is greater than his own longing for death to stay alive for the sake of the boy: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” Among the pitiful heap of belongings that the two haul along the road in an old grocery cart with a broken wheel is a .45 pistol with two rounds remaining in its chamber: one for the boy, should they fall into the hands of the cannibals, and another for himself. As the journey unfolds, the man comes increasingly to doubt whether he will be capable, when and if the moment should arise, of killing his own offspring. He constantly worries, too, about the effect on the boy’s mind of the grisly scenes that they witness along the road. “What you put in your head,” he frequently warns his son, “is there forever.” One day, they round a bend in the road to find a tableau of “Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling,” figures of people caught in a firestorm that swept the road before they could take cover. The son anticipates his father’s warning and reassures him that it’s “okay,” because “They’re already there” and will “still be there” whether he averts his eyes or not.
This world of howling nightmares is the only world the boy knows, for he was born after the conflagration. Much of the novel’s ironic pathos derives from this essential difference between father and son. The man tells his stories of the world as it once was, in part to reassure the boy that things were not always so hideous, so devoid of comfort and hope. But the son grows more skeptical with each passing day. One night, when they have found temporary refuge in an underground shelter, the father gazes at the sleeping boy and understands
for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.
To the boy, his father’s tales seem like fictions spun out of memories that, for the man himself, grow more tenuous in the very telling.
One of the most disturbing themes of The Road is this inexorable diminishing of the father’s memory of the past and, with it, the very possibility of enduring meaning:
The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true.
In the beginning, as the Genesis account informs us, Adam was privileged with the singular task of naming the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air. According to Midrashic tradition, Adam, in the bestowing of names, was able to do what even the angels could not, and was thus a participant in the very act of creation, of bringing creation to its fruition by granting it individuality. In The Road, this process is reversed. The father, a latter-day Adam, is stunned to discover how fragile is the world that he once took for granted. The beasts of the field, the birds, even the fish have all but disappeared—and, with them, their names and their very reality. But in the midst of this increasingly meaningless world, he clings to his primordial (and sacred) role of father and protector. “So be it,” he thinks. “Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
McCarthy has frequently been criticized over the years for the insignificant role that women play in his novels. It is certainly the case that his fictional worlds are almost exclusively masculine, and that the few women who do appear there are not especially memorable. Whether this may be justly considered a major flaw in his work, I will leave to others to decide. In The Road, there is only one, very brief, physical encounter with a woman. But there is another, more significant female presence: the father’s haunted and bitter memory of his dead wife (and mother of his son). In a series of potent flashbacks, we learn that she died, on the day before their journey began, by her own hand. When she announces her intention, the man begs her to reconsider. But she is adamant in her assertion that hers is the only morally justifiable choice:
It’s the right thing to do. . . . 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 won’t face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen.
He has no answer to this, other than a promise never to abandon her. The exchange which follows is revealing:
I don’t care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.
Death is not a lover.
Oh, yes, he is.
It is strongly suggested that the father considers her suicide to have been a betrayal of her duty to himself and the boy. When the deed is done (with a razor-sharp flake of obsidian), we learn that “She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift.” Of course, it is the father’s intention to make a similar exit (with the rounds in his .45), should the necessity arise. But, in the end, this is not the choice he makes, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his is the morally superior path. In an oblique way, this may be McCarthy’s response to his critics. The dead wife’s character is a decidedly formidable one; she is far from insignificant, nor is she a sentimental caricature or an adolescent fantasy (the usual charges against McCarthy’s fictional women). However, it is unlikely that the critics will be appeased. On the contrary, many will be infuriated by what might appear to be, or might be construed as, a misogynistic parable on the moral fecklessness of women.
Whatever conclusions one might draw from this about McCarthy’s position in the sex wars, it is clearly not so much the father as the son who is the moral heart of the novel. In spite of all the numbing horrors that they have witnessed, his conscience remains as tender as an open wound. The most touching scenes in The Road are the frequent exchanges in which the boy implores his father for reassurance that they are “the good guys,” or that they must keep moving, in spite of the sometimes overwhelming urge to give up, because it is their duty to “carry the fire.” For the most part, the father is aware that, to remain the “good guys,” they must adhere to certain clear moral guidelines. They must not kill, save in self-defense; they must not steal; they must not eat of human flesh, even if the alternative is to starve. All of these precepts, the father keeps, though sometimes he must make hard decisions that trouble the son. On one occasion only does he appear to cross the line. When their grocery cart, containing all that remains of their food supply, is stolen, they track down the thief and confront him in the middle of the road. In retaliation (and to ensure that he will no longer threaten them), the father forces the man to strip naked and then releases him. The thief begs for mercy, but the father is unrelenting. They leave him exposed to the elements, resigning him to an almost-certain death. The son is visibly distraught and will not be comforted until the father agrees to return the thief’s clothes, but their efforts are fruitless. The man has disappeared. The father seems to recognize that his son’s moral instincts have proved more reliable than his own (hardened, as they are, by the struggle to survive), and, as the novel nears its conclusion, he nourishes a faith that there is some providence at work in their lives (though he calls it “luck”), that the boy is destined somehow to “carry the flame” into some “unimaginable future.”
Finally, I must say something more about McCarthy’s stylistic accomplishment in The Road. Dedicated readers of his novels often fall into two opposed camps. One, with almost cultlike devotion, argues that McCarthy’s reputation will endure primarily on the basis of early books such as Child of God (1974) and Blood Meridian (1985). The other prefers the lighter touch, heightened lyricism, and more frequent humor of the later novels, beginning especially with the first of the Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses (1992). I confess that I am inclined to agree with the partisans of the later novels, but I would also suggest that the contrast between the early and later work has been exaggerated. There is much to admire in the early novels, but they do, at times, lapse into what can only be described as an overwrought gothicism. Consider, for example, the following passage taken from a carnival scene in Child of God:
And you could see among the faces a young girl with candyapple on her lips and her eyes wide. Her hair smelled of soap, womanchild from beyond the years, rapt beneath the sulphur glow and pitchlight of some medieval fun fair. A lean skylong candle skewered the black pools in her eyes. Her fingers clutched. In the flood of this breaking brimstone galaxy she saw the man with the bears watching her.
The passage begins nicely enough, and one admires the “lean skylong candle,” but why spoil the effect with the portentous “womanchild from beyond the years” (what does it mean?), the “skewered” black eyes, or the almost laughable “breaking brimstone galaxy”? In his more recent productions, McCarthy has wisely pruned such excesses from his prose, relying more heavily on taut, razor-sharp dialogue and less frequent but more effective description. Consider the following passage from The Road:
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running.
To be sure, this verges on the portentous—but stops just short of that. What is the difference? It is difficult to say, except that there is no straining for effect here, and that what would otherwise come across as somewhat clichéd is redeemed by the perfect Shakespearean diction of “the intestate earth” and those “blind dogs of the sun in their running.”
Despite the almost nihilistic pessimism evident in passages like this one, The Road is probably McCarthy’s most hopeful novel to date. For the first time, to my knowledge, he is suggesting that there is a redemptive power in self-sacrificing human love that transcends the futility of lives lived out in the face of an “implacable” darkness. This hope, all the more impressively achieved against the background of global annihilation, is surely just a step away from the Christian affirmation of the redeeming power of the Cross.
[The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 256 pp., $24.00]
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