The Road by Cormac McCarthy

TheroadI’m ten years late getting around to reading The Road (Alfred A. Knopf, 287 pages), but since it has to rank among the most powerful pieces of American fiction written in the past ten years, it remains more than worthy of discussion. McCarthy here tells a tale of “nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” We’re in the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction. Bad times have descended upon the U.S. and the whole world, consequent upon some enormous Catastrophe. We are never told what happened—it could have been a nuclear war—but one thing is obvious: something really big has blown, leaving ash all over the earth and floating through the air. Apparently most animals are extinct, and the few human beings who survive face fellow humans who are, largely, living beastly lives.

Incidentally, I happened recently to have reread, for the first time in fifty-five years, Pat Frank’s early classic in the same genre, Alas, Babylon (1959), which tells of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and describes how a town in Central Florida copes with the disaster. Although most of the country is obliterated, Frank depicts the small group of survivors as doing rather well at coping. The book concludes with the U.S.A. slowly picking itself up after the disaster, preparing to go on with its country and its human lives. McCarthy’s dark tale seems, at least to me, rather better at showing how things would be in the era of Post-Catastrophe.

The action of the The Road describes a father and son wandering through the devastation, on their way somewhere in search of survival. They have an old road map, which they consult periodically, but the author never lets the reader have a look at that map. Descriptions of the flora suggest that they are wandering in the Appalachian Mountains, through Tennessee and the Carolinas to the Carolina coast. Since they are bearing south most of the time, and since they are oppressed by the cold, we assume that they are making, eventually, for Florida. At one point they come across an old sign reading, “See Rock City,” but no other place names are mentioned. The reader and the protagonists are just “out there somewhere,” in a dead land that has no name. Sometimes it appears that they are on the road not really to get anywhere, but just to keep in motion, one step ahead of death.

The characters as well, have no names—or, rather, they must have names, but McCarthy prefers not to reveal them to the reader, and, in so doing, he makes them broadly symbolic of the everyman generic father-son. At one point midway in the novel the boy and father meet an old man, who tells them his name is Ely. The reader thinks, “Aha, finally somebody with a name,” but four pages later the father asks, “Is your name really Ely” and the old man answers, “No.” No one in this dim post-apocalyptic world trusts anyone else, and people revert to age-old superstitions: give a man your name and he might conjure with it to do you harm.

You don’t have to read far into this book to realize that if something like this conflagration ever descends upon our world, then the most fortunate of human beings will be those who die quickly. Of course, we prefer, or rather the neurons deep in our brain—in charge of creating defensive mechanisms that enable us to go on living—prefer not looking at the possibility of such a thing. In writing this book, McCarthy forces the reader to look, although even after reading the whole novel most of us will fall back on those defense mechanisms and put the matter out of our minds. The anodyne ending of the novel (more on this later) suggests that McCarthy himself could not quite do without certain false consolations.

To knock us modern-day civilized Americans altogether on our ears it would not even take a nuclear conflagration. We are so inured, e.g., to the comforts of electricity, that were terrorists to launch a cyberattack, knocking out our electric grids for months, or even years, we would, alas, probably quickly find ourselves in something like the horrendous situation described in this novel—in which everything is dog eat dog, cannibalism is the norm, and the most beastly types are most likely to survive.

Here is that same old man they meet on the road, describing his take on preparation for the disaster.

I knew this was coming.
Did you try to get ready for it?
No. What would you do?
I don’t know.
People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.

Now tomorrow has arrived, and it still doesn’t know that people are there. Maybe that’s the biggest difference between the way people would think before and after the Catastrophe. Before the event they think tomorrow might know they are here, but after the event they know that tomorrow, or today, or yesterday—or God, if there is a God, which most likely there is not—have no inkling of their existence. The world of The Road is a dead world: “The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void.” Indeed, it appears throughout the book that God is dead as well, at least until the very last pages.

All the old rules by which people live their lives have been abrogated. When the father and son share some food with that old man whom they encounter on the road, he never thanks them. “Thank you” has gone out with the going out of the world. “You won’t wish us luck either, will you?” says the father. The old man replies, “I don’t know what that would mean. What luck would look like. Who would know such a thing?”

We meet the mother of the boy and wife of the main protagonist only for one brief scene, but that scene is powerfully written, and it rings true. The unnamed woman tells her husband she is about to commit suicide, and she departs with no loving words for him, or for the universe.

“We’re not survivors; we’re the walking dead in a horror film.” . . . “I didn’t bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I’m done.” . . . “My only hope is for eternal nothingness, and I hope it with all my heart.” She goes on to insist that surviving only for oneself is impossible: “You can’t survive only for yourself. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love.”

Why is she so insistent on dying? Because the world she knew is dead, and not likely to somehow resurrect itself. “Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him [the son]. 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, but I can’t.”

We are provided few glimpses of what human society, to the extent that it even exists, is like in this new world of the dead, but one brief scene, describing the marchers of a ragtag army, provides all the detail we need.

“…the marchers appear four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. . . . He wallowed on the ground and lay watching across his forearm. An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. Shh, he said. Shh. The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. The boy lay with his face in his arms, terrified. They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen of them, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites, illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.”

Slaves, catamites and pregnant women. At first one thinks, Well, at least in face of all the beastliness of the new dead world, they are concerned with propagating the species, but then, later in the book, there are hints that fetuses are cooked and eaten as delicacies. The constant question of the boy when he and his father encounter other humans, “Are they the good guys or the bad guys?” At least until the very end of the book the only good guys in this whole universe appear to be the father and son. They are, it seems, the last real human beings still left on earth.

The dogs and cats have all been eaten; there are no more birds in the skies. In fact, most animals are extinct; the only trace of cows is “a lingering odor” in a barn. The boy hopes to see a blue sea when they finally reach the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, but that sea, so it turns out, is as gray as the sky and the earth. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, in the world of The Road, the only emperor is the emperor of I scream. Here’s what the world looks like when it’s gone:

“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. The crushing black vacuum of the universe.”

Oddly enough, it is incantatory descriptive passages like these, depicting a dead world in beautiful language, that somehow save the reader of this book from descending into total despair. It is what one critic called “this violent grotesque world rendered in gorgeous, melancholic, even biblical cadences.” Another declared that “the book announces the triumph of language over nothingness.” As Anthony Burgess once wrote in a different context, “The denial of human joy is made through language that is itself a joy.” Before watching the film of this novel (2011), I assumed that it would be oppressive, since it would, of necessity, be devoid of that redemption through language. The very process of filming, relying mostly on graphic imagery, militates against the redeeming verbiage of the printed book. But I didn’t find the film depressing. It, like the book, is certainly no joy ride, but the director of the film uses creative artistic graphic imagery to take some of the pain off the production.

The book is a road book, and the movie of The Road is a Hollywood “road movie,” a tale of traveling from place to place having adventures. This is a tried-and-true Hollywood genre, but it has its origins in the picaresque novels at the dawn of the literary age. It is certainly fitting that The Road should be a picaresque, since here we are reading something like the last novel ever to be written. It is, therefore, somehow appropriate that its structure should resemble the first novels ever written.

I’m not sure anyone has commented on something I find interesting in McCarthy’s novel: words applicable to the situation of the dire tragedy depicted here can also be applicable to the human condition in general. The wife’s words about how, if one wishes to survive one needs someone to live for (cited above), are equally applicable, say, to old men and women in our un-apocalyptic world who lose their spouses late in life. As the wife says, one “would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love.” This is exactly what bereaved spouses are doing when they spend time talking alone to their dead loved ones.

Then again, even if we never (God grant) have to see the world end before our eyes, as the characters of this book see it, each of us individually must face the trials and tribulations, the hurts and pains and losses of any life. We also must face the ending of our own personal world; and, like the wife of the novel, none of us have brought ourselves to any of this—we were brought.

Here is another typical passage describing what is left of a once familiar world after the coming of the Catastrophe:

“Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusted cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses, shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. The thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.”

[Webster’s Second International Dictionary: crozzle—“to shrivel or cake with heat; to burn to a cinder,” listed as dialectical English]

As I’ve mentioned several times, there is no place left for a God in the crozzled hearts of the characters. There is little or no trace of a Deus around for most of the action of the novel. When father and son stumble upon a stroke of stupendous good luck, finding an underground bunker full of food, they never even think of thanking God—although they thank the missing people who left them this cornucopia. Then, right at the end of The Road, Deus out of a machine suddenly shows up. The father finally gives up his struggle to survive, tells his son to go on without him, and dies. Then, abruptly, God is back.

God shows up in the person of a “good guy,” who ambles into the book and adopts the boy, saving him from a certain death. This good guy also has two children and a wonderful wife, and none of them eat people. In light of the bleak reality that McCarthy has been describing for the first 280 pages of the book, the Deus ex machina ending is totally unbelievable. I’m not sure exactly what the author is up to here. With his consummate feel for the artistic integrity of the structure, he could not have believed he could get away with this ending. Any yet there it is, staring us in the face, something like the ending of Huckleberry Finn. No, please. Don’t stick this not-good-at-all ending on a very good book.

Is the appearance of the miraculous family that takes the boy in one of the boy’s dreams, or that of his dying father? Could be, and maybe that is the only way to justify the ending, but McCarthy gives us nothing dreamlike in this descriptive passage—nothing to suggest that the scene is other than reality. I don’t get it. But since those pages are there, we can only accept the ending, look past the final six pages, and exult in the artistry of the first 280 pages of this brilliant book.

U.R. Bowie, author of Googlgogol: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc., 2016.

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