Every now and then there comes a book which is like an arrow shot into the heart of things because it has the power to redeem the fading, diffuse enterprise of bookselling and novel-gazing both, all the misbegotten hours spent in trains and libraries and the whole history of a form lately devolved into the mercantile machinations of blockbuster publishing on the one hand and academicized Glasperlenspiel on the other. Such books exist to be studied, discussed, borrowed, and applauded, but most of all they exist to be enjoyed by readers as the grace-given objects of beauty and mystery they are. Cormac McCarthyâ€™s The Road (2006) is the story of a man and his young son as they wander the ruins of post-apocalyptic America encountering in their march to the sea various wonders, trials, and temptations, but mostly just starving to death. The book is an experiment in existential despair, an elegy of civilization itself, and a testament to the best and worst parts of humanity.
Cormac McCarthy stands as a solitary figure upon the plain of American postmodern literature. He is neither a member of the magical realist medicine show nor another lyrical encyclopedist of the middle-aged white male that has miraculously arrogated to himself Everyman status. Neither are his books labyrinthine tomes packed with erudition and metatextual caprice, nor do they expose the jaded lives of some cutting-edge demographic like psychopath financiers or down-and-out fact-checkers. McCarthyâ€™s books, forged in his own arcane idiolect of forgotten words, typically depict people in rather antique circumstances doing rather antique things like cutting trails, trapping wolves, and scalping Apaches for money. In an age of echolalia, his characters comport themselves with unwonted reticence. Similarly, McCarthy himself eschews the customs and pecuniary blandishments of the writerly lifestyle: he never gives interviews or speeches, declines awards, and holds no papers from any institution recognized or improvised.
â€œThe clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.â€ This is as much as we ever learn about the origin or nature of the eschaton that precipitates all subsequent tribulation. The bleak aftermath of this disaster is so utterly desolate as to challenge the imaginative power of the reader and constitute a literary accomplishment in its own right. The world is ruined, a depleted vale of tears, corpses, and ashes. All horizons have collapsed, and everything is dead or dying or worse than dead. If McCarthy mentions a single living animal or plant in this book, I missed it. The most frequent word he uses to describe the land is â€œsilent.â€ Every day arrives darker and colder than the day that went before. The man and boy regularly stumble upon horrific scenes of the dead surprised and entombed by catastrophe: â€œFigures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling.â€ McCarthy commingles delicacy and horror in his interminable descriptions of bodies composed in dread tableaux vivants as if by way of admonitory theology. For example:
“The mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth. They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.”
The few human beings still roaming the earth have kept themselves alive through hunting other humans down and eating them. Homo homini lupus. Indeed, the vicissitudes of an inhospitable environment are no match for the depredations and atrocities of mankind:
“The wall beyond held a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes. They wore gold rings in their leather ears and in the wind their sparse and ratty hair twisted about on their skulls. The teeth in their sockets like dental molds, the crude tattoos etched in homebrewed woad faded in the beggared sunlight. Spiders, swords, targets. A dragon. Runic slogans, creeds misspelled.”
At one point they discover, â€œa charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit.â€ At another they discover naked survivors imprisoned underground in a makeshift oubliette, being held there apparently as a food-supply. Nearby they find: â€œPiled in a windrow in one corner of the room was a great heap of clothing. Clothes and shoes. Belts. Coats. Blankets and old sleeping bags.â€
This unmistakable evocation of the Holocaust is no isolated incident â€“ along with Faulkner and The Aeneid, nothing has influenced this book more than Holocaust narratives. Reminiscent details abound everywhere, and the man explicitly compares his sonâ€™s skeletal appearance to â€œsomething out of a deathcamp.â€ Indeed, the predominant feeling of supreme desperation and unreal misery pervading The Road has only one historical analogue: the Konzentrationslager scattered by the Nazis over Eastern Europe like a grinning deathâ€™s-head. The calculus of mere survival which has people eating people is the natural correlate of the machinery of death.
The Road cultivates a strange attunement to the penumbra of encroaching extinction, a sense of everything coming to an end and therefore being pressed into service as the final witnessing of whatever it was. Musing upon the disintegration of things, the man reflects, â€œThe last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone.â€ As the man holds an antique, well-crafted brass sextant in his hands, McCarthy writes, â€œIt was the first thing heâ€™d seen in a long time that stirred him.â€ He remembers waking one day and hearing the â€œhalf muted crankingsâ€ of flocks of birds in confused, doomed migration. â€œHe wished them godspeed till they were gone. He never heard them again.â€ The devastation extends to more than the biosphere:
â€œThe world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of thing slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.â€
When queried by the boy as to whether he had a lot of friends and whether his friends are dead, the man replies, â€œYes. All of them.â€ After coming into possession of a hidden keep of supplies, the man has to show the boy how to butter a biscuit: for how would he know? The Road is full of such orchid moments. In a barn, having detected some residual waft of the bovine, â€œhe stood there thinking about cows and he realized they were extinct. Was that true? There could be a cow somewhere being fed and cared for. Could there? Fed what? Saved for what?â€
That sullen, incredulous question, â€œSaved for what?â€ expresses the despairing spirit of The Road perfectly. What makes this book an epitome of pessimism is not so much the ominous lay of circumstances themselves so much as the evacuation of all hope and meaning from the world. Indeed, the scope and enormity of the preponderant ruin seem to vitiate every pretension to meaning. Although ostensibly the ocean is the terminus of their journey, the man admits, â€œthat all of this was empty and no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that.â€ Thereâ€™s no Canaan or Latinium waiting for them, no clarion moment of, â€œThalassa, Thalassa.â€ And yet they trudge on.
Anomic suicide is the greatest temptation they face, one to which the manâ€™s wife succumbed. In one of the most awful exchanges of the book, she envisions their likely future: â€œSooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. Theyâ€™ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. Youâ€™d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant.â€ She declares with terrible sincerity, â€œAs for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.â€ The man has two bullets within the chambers of his gun.
Such is the great moral subject and soul-trying question at the heart of The Road: why live at all? Little struggles and isolate moments assume a paramount importance in relation to this question. Staring at a vast, beautiful forest-fire in the distance, the man thinks, â€œMake a list. Recite a litany. Remember.â€ He and the boy are, â€œeach the otherâ€™s world entire.â€ The man finds his purpose in seeking to deliver the child into safety. McCarthy writes, â€œHe knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.â€ The two share a laconic rapport and idiosyncratic mythology adapted to the exigencies of the road. They are the â€œgood guysâ€ traveling â€œthe roadâ€ watching out for the â€œbad guys.â€ They call themselves â€œgood guysâ€ because they â€œdont eat peopleâ€ and are â€œcarrying the fire.â€ The fundaments of religion reduced to the jargon of starveling idiots and yet all the holier for it. â€œEvoke the forms. Where youâ€™ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.â€ Before the man is at last carried off by the tussis that has nagged him the length of the book, leaving his son alone (no older than five) to face the scourges of an unimaginably hostile world where even wolves are extinct possessed of little more than a few blankets and bullets, he tells him, â€œYou have to carry the fire. Itâ€™s inside you. It was always there. I can see it,â€ and finally, â€œGoodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.â€
I believe that Cormac McCarthy is one of our finest living authors: The Road does nothing to dispel this belief. The prose style on display in novels like Outer Dark (1968), Suttree (1979), and especially Blood Meridian (1985) was an embarrassment of riches. It smolders onward here â€“ attenuated, filed down, cauterized â€“ in the sense of a restive capacity or flickering absence. McCarthyâ€™s prose bears the promise of great power married to a compact exterior, like holding a bullet in your hand â€“ the coolness and numinous materiality of the thing. The text itself is organized in the form of a succession of fragments, ranging from a few sentences to a few pages, sown together in rough order and shored against the general ruin. The resultant tempo of reading is like a guttering candle or the belabored respiration of a dying narrator which in a very literal sense it is.
Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms (1929) famously wrote, â€œAbstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, or the names of rivers.â€ Likewise Adorno wrote, â€œTo write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.â€ There is a strong theme running through The Road of the written word as utterly inadequate and therefore insultingly mendacious. Coming upon the methodic destruction of a library, the man ascribes it to â€œsome rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row,â€ â€“ a rage by extension at every form of belletristic humanism along with ideas of human progress and worldly perfectibility.
Yet against the desolation of letters McCarthy counterposes the resurgent power of orality and â€œold stories of courage and justice.â€
â€œHe banked the fire against the seam of rock where heâ€™d built it and he strung the tarp behind them to reflect the heat and they sat warm in their refuge while he told the boy stories. Old stories of courage and justice as he remembered them until the boy was asleep in his blankets and then he stoked the fire and lay down warm and full and listened to the low thunder of the falls beyond them in that dark and threadbare wood.â€