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October 18, 2006

Cormac McCarthy's The Road


At the conclusion of No Country For Old Men, the killer Anton Chigurh slips away without a trace after nearly getting killed in a car accident. The old sheriff asked a young witness what he looked like. He didn't look like anybody, the kid tells him. McCarthy's embodiment of mankind's capability for - and, indeed, his inclination towards - not just violence but primal, intrinsic evil has become amorphous, has disseminated himself; has, essentially, maintained the upper hand in the mythic equation simply by remaining out there and irresolute. It is a bleak ending, leaving the good men in the world flickering against the growing darkness.

One year later, with The Road, McCarthy has, in a sense, offered an answer to this open ending. This new novel takes place in the aftermath of Chigurh's manifestation; the evil of man has done nearly all it can, and in its wake death has claimed the land, the birds, the fish in the sea. One of the last living humans predicts that death too will shortly expire:

When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: Where did everybody go? And that's how it will be.

In the most simplistic sense, The Road is a post-apocalyptic travelogue: a father and his young son travel across an America charred by some manmade cataclysm, heading south to escape the winter. In such a synopsis there might seem a hint of redundancy; after all, McCarthy's landscapes have always been fairly apocalyptic, his stories rife with fathers and sons, always on the precipice of some biblical reckoning. By the publisher's dust jacket account, the novel almost sounds like an indulgence in a narrative conflagration the author has always previously danced around the edge of.

The first few pages of the novel might even suggest that McCarthy has distilled his themes and style into a tone poem. The story is told in short, shallow breaths; episodes that last a paragraph, maybe two, syntax too brief and precise to flower into fully formed phrases. This is a world, it turns out, ten years after the apocalypse. Nothing is left, and the totality of this extends to McCarthy's prose, which wears one down with repetition. It was very cold on one page. It was colder a page later. The snow fell nor did it cease to fall. This is a world devoid of color and feeling, where all physical detail has been rendered gray and mute, and this vacuity extends to his dialogue. Gone by and large, confined to vague flashbacks, are the long, philosophical expostulations of his past characters; this father and little boy speak with an extreme terseness that is sometimes comical, sometimes moving, like they're talking to hear their own voices or to give each other proof that the other is still there.

Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we're still going south.
So we'll be warm.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.

This is not simplicity for simplicity's sake, however; this is literary rationing. McCarthy is making every word count, every phrase last, so that it will pay off later. This form engenders a deep sense of satisfaction as the author's trademark descriptiveness begins to flourish amidst the ruins and the narrative begins to take a shape. It becomes a story of survival, of a family foraging, and for a while I was reminded of the pragmatic thrills I got when I was younger, reading Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe; as the man and his son find the means to go on, to protect themselves, to continue further, the story becomes something of an adventure. A bleak, unforgiving adventure, but one with its share of small pleasures writ large by circumstance.

Consistent with this is the evil that the protagonists must face. The landscape is populated with scavengers who have turned to murder and cannibalism and who reflect - but do not represent - the evil that brought this scourge down upon the world. They are dangerous, but not as dangerous as the land itself. In other words, good and evil are now in the same boat. The playing fields have been leveled, and while the odds may be staggered against the father and son, they have a chance. Death may not have expired yet, but his sister fate seems to have passed.

Still, McCarthy leaves room for plenty of unspeakable horrors. This narrative crosses paths with Outer Dark, his second novel, when the father and son come upon a campfire over which a human infant is being roasted (throughout his oveure, and extending perhaps to the Sheriff's inner monologue about abortion in No Country For Old Men, there's no greater sign of evil than the slaughter of babies, and no greater sign of evil's influence than the relative frequency with which this occurs in his work). There's another sequence which I won't describe, except to say that it takes place in a cellar, that is one of the two or three most terrifying sequences I've ever read in literature. It's one of those scenes that makes rereading the novel almost unbearable, as the weight and proximity of that terrible page grows closer.

It is after this sequence, roughly halfway through the novel, that the father reassures the boy that "we're the good guys." The boy responds with something that must have been ingrained in him:

And we're carrying the fire.
And we're carrying the fire. Yes.

This subsistent mantra is repeated but never explained. Most likely it is an empty phrase, something uttered by the father to give his son hope; but it works, like a placebo, fomenting ulterior motivation and, more importantly, a sense of greater good. It is around this point that the novel ceases to become a series of episodes. Within his self-imposed constraints, McCarthy's intentions start to become clear; from the stultifying dialogue, those carefully chosen words, a dynamic begins to emerge. Something unexpected and powerful and, ultimately, deeply felt. Throughout the book, McCarthy has laid a nihilistic groundwork for his heroes: the father carries a gun with two bullets, one for each of them, and he's promised the boy (and made the boy promise back) that if one should go, the other will follow. But late in the game, on the edge of an acrid ocean, the boy falls ill, and as the father nurses him and anticipates death and keeps the gun near, his disposition changes.

He held the boy and bent to hear the labored suck of air. His hand on the thin and laddered ribs. He walked out on the beach to the edge of the light and stood with his clenched fists on top of his skull and fell to his knees sobbing in rage.

The exhausted complacency he displayed earlier in the novel, the belief that death would be soon and inevitable, is gone, replaced by a deep and desperate need to go on living. Perhaps there's something to 'the fire' after all. Towards the end of his lengthy review for the New York Times, William Kennedy writes that The Road, "in addition to being a nonpareil vision of an apocalyptic landscape, is also a messianic parable," and goes on to accurately substantiate this reading. Regardless of whether one wishes to take this subtext literally (the groundwork is certainly there), there is one undeniable outcome: an overwhelming sense of hope, and of goodness - something, Kennedy points out, that is anomalous in McCarthy's literature - strong enough to match that malevolence that until now has held sway. It's not quite sentimentalism, but it's as close as McCarthy has ever gotten to tugging on the strings of his readers' hearts - particularly when, after reaching the last page of the novel, you turn back to the first and see that it is dedicated to the author's son.

McCarthy is nearing his mid-seventies, the point in an author's life when any given work might become his last. There are rumors he has more manuscripts waiting in the wings, more plays and novels; perhaps, in retrospect, The Road will be seen as a token a sidetrip down an unfamiliar thematic path, but I think it reaches heights too significant to be limited to that. For once, the dust jacket, in its simple and mandatory proclamation of a masterpiece, might be absolutely right.

* * *

Over at the forums of the Cormac McCarthy Society, someone notes that Darren Aronofsky has purchased the film rights to The Road. It's a rumor completely unsubstantiated thus far, and despite its narrative simplicity, I don't know how well this book would work on screen; it doesn't have the plot mechanics that will, I think, make No Country For Old Men a great film. But it's fun to think about.

Posted by David Lowery at October 18, 2006 05:59 AM


Not only dedicated to his (younger) son, but the son is something like 8 years old, more or less the age of the child in The Road

Posted by: nightspore at November 6, 2006 11:32 PM