Cormac McCarthy isn’t an author I’ve ever before read. Even in good reviews, his books have always sounded rather male-identified. That is, they seem to be resolutely, openly, avowedly, unashamedly about men. And that’s fine. It’s just that those aren’t the kinds of novels I usually pick up and enjoy.
But reviews of The Road intrigued me, and reading the book, I was powerfully moved, so I’m recommending it here. I can’t offer you background on McCarthy, or compare this latest novel to his oeuvre. I can only offer you my impressions and how it felt to be carried along by this story and the searing images McCarthy has wrought.
The story is simple, bleak in its desperate elegance. A man and a 10-year-old boy walk empty interstate highways in a post-apocalypse environment, consulting frayed pieces of an ancient map to find their way south or to a coast. McCarthy doesn’t explain how they came to be on their journey. The little bits of back-story he provides appear like moments of color in an otherwise black and white film. No exposition cushions the catastrophe of the world through which they move.
Pushing ahead of them a shopping cart that holds meager possessions covered by a rotting tarp, the man and the boy (neither have names) follow the blistered black top, watching behind them for the “bad guys” that might not just impede their journey, but ruthlessly end their lives.
Their lives, such as they are, seem hardly worth saving. They forage for food and approach starvation numerous times through the short narrative, which takes place over the course of a few months or so. The road they walk is covered in gray ash, the landscape unrelieved by color or even movement, except when the weather shifts and cold winds or lashing rains drive them under their makeshift shelter.
Their clothes are ragged, their shoes long since disintegrated. Their bodies are filthy, their hair matted, their bones sharp under their skin, and the father’s lungs are wracked by a hacking cough that sometimes incapacitates him. Both wear face masks covered with soot to protect their breath from the toxic air through which they move.
Their conversation runs in fits and starts, short, declarative sentences often as simple as “okay” or “I don’t know.” Few adverbs or adjectives adorn the prose, and yet you can hear, as you read, the quality of their voices, the care they take with parceling out their emotions in a world in which despair and desperation seem the only logical things to feel.
Their exchanges are full, the father’s with his concern for his child, the child’s with a protective silence about the truth of their existence. They perform for each other a kind of normality, a refusal of resignation, a determination just short of hope, that keeps them trudging toward a destination they can barely even imagine. Their interactions are tender, full of love they never directly express.
In the spare, waste-free poetry of his words, McCarthy renders the intimacy of utter solitude. The man and the boy could be the last people on earth; there’s no way to communicate outside of their brief exchanges with each other. They know they’re not alone, that bands of villainous cannibals who roam this perverse world could appear at any moment. This keeps the narrative tense with the unknown and unexpected, even as McCarthy underlines the tedium of days and weeks lived simply pushing the fragile cart through a landscape of obstruction and debris.
The horror the father and son encounter is unimaginable, and yet seems such a likely outcome for a world in which nuclear annihilation is always possible. Cities stand empty and gray, their buildings rifled by the few survivors that people the place. Houses are ransacked for food and firewood, clothing and blankets. No one, it seems, can stay anywhere permanently, because the danger of the marauding bands of “bad guys” is too grave.
The bad guys are the cannibals, who roast headless infants on spits in the woods, soulless haunts who ramble like anarchists through a world in which rules no longer apply. The few close-ups McCarthy provides of these degenerate beings are chilling. The fact that the women among them are pregnant is both frustrating in its apparent misogyny—that even in a post-nuclear holocaust landscape, women would be barefoot and pregnant—and nauseating, in the presumption of a future signaled from within the wombs of this new world’s most evil antagonists. Perhaps the women are simply growing their own food.
In fact, when the man and boy come unexpectedly to a house with a locked cellar, the father works fiercely to open it, assuming that only food could be guarded so securely. When the door opens and he ventures down the stairs, finding his way with an old lighter, he sees filthy, naked men and women huddled together, blinking in the light. One person lies on a table, the stumps of his legs bleeding freely. One of these creatures approaches the man, saying simply, “Help us.”
But in this ethical economy, survivors can only help themselves. Any care they might extend would mean less to keep themselves alive. The man retreats up the stairs, relocking the door behind him. He knows he’s leaving fellow human beings to their fate as food; he knows that he did indeed break into a trove of nourishment, one palatable only for those who could bear to eat their own kind. McCarthy inverts the comforting domestic tropes of so much fiction; if this house is a womb, then like the women the man and boy see through its windows, it can only be incubating a new supply of humans to be eaten by others.
The father responds dispassionately to these horrors, saving his rage for moments late in the obsidian nights when the boy sleeps and the father is up, coughing and railing at a god he knows doesn’t exist. He recalls snippets of a “before,” not before this holocaust, but before he and the boy set out on the road. His wife killed herself, refusing to stay alive only to wait for a sure and violent death. He can remember only flashes of color, light, and sound, of birds that used to fly. His memory holds references to signs that no longer have meaning; the boy has never seen live birds, has never known a world that wasn’t covered with gray sludge and inflicted with vicious weather.
The boy, though, is the story’s moral voice. When he and the man meet a little boy his age, darting in and out of abandoned buildings, the father’s boy wants to save him, take him with them on their journey. But the pragmatic father shunts aside his own compassion to save themselves.
Later, a lone man robs them, stealing their cart and its contents. The father and son track him down and when they overtake and disarm him, the father forces the thief to strip, taking his clothes along with their belongings and leaving the man alone in the road. The boy is stricken with grief, knowing that there are tantamount to murdering the man. But the father insists that the thief intended to kill them. The world around them might be monochromatically gray, but the father’s actions brook no shadings. Survival can only accommodate black or white, yes or no, life or death.
The boy and his father “carry the fire,” which seems both metaphorical and mystical in The Road. One way or another, even when they don’t have food or water, the father lights a fire every night, gathering wood that remains plentiful, and starting the flame in ways McCarthy never describes. The fire also seems internal; the father and son are the “good guys,” plodding forward toward a future they don’t even know exists.
When they arrive at the coast, when they can go no further, they still keep walking, tracing their way along the shore, weaving inland and back again to the beach. The ocean is no longer blue as the father remembered and the boy had hoped, but now just pestilential waves of gray water crashing on blackened sand. The father falls fatally ill and won’t survive. He tries to secure the boy’s safety, teaching him to go on as they have before, keeping with him the pistol that’s the barest insurance of their potential security, even though all but one of its bullets are carved from wood and wax instead of metal. They go on, determined:
“They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.
The nights dead still and deader black. So cold. They talked hardly
at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting
blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He’d stop and
lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he
would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back
at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle”
This strikes me as a powerful statement of faith in a desolate, spiritless world.
I won’t reveal The Road’s end, since part of what compelled me through the book was wondering how McCarthy would finish a story that only seemed able to close in one cataclysmic way. Instead, the final moments of the book accomplish the most remarkable feat of all, which is to instill hope in the midst of utter despair.
I looked at my world through new eyes as I read The Road, suddenly aware of the depth of color and texture and sound and life that surrounds me every moment. McCarthy’s achievement is to capture so viscerally what it would be like to be the only living beings in a dead landscape, and the utter desolation of trying to keep not only your body, but your spirit, alive.
The world he paints so horribly, though, doesn’t seem that far-fetched, given North Korea’s posturing about its nuclear program, and the fear that Iran, too, is building a nuclear arsenal. McCarthy refuses to draw these analogies, or to lay blame, or even to explain what’s happened to the world as we think we know it.
He doesn’t have to. Reading The Road, you instantly understand that the landscape he depicts is the inevitable outcome of the insanity of human power gone tragically awry, of human dominion taken to one of its logical, malevolent extremes. That McCarthy also persuades you by the end that benevolence and love can continue to exist in such an ethical wilderness makes The Road an intense and moving read.
And strangely analogous to a stunningly hopeful historical moment in which the Democrats have regained Congress.
To the future, then,
The Feminist Spectator