- The Road
- Knopf, 241 pp.
The Road – Through a Shattered Looking Glass Darkly
Post apocalyptic novels are a dark, bleak and often illuminating genre that are highlighted by titles that include The Day of the Triffids, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Eternity Road, On The Beach and Galapagos. J.G. Ballard carved out a large section of this wasted landscape with The Crystal World, The Drowning World, The Burning World and The Wind From Nowhere. But among all of these fine works and dozens more I’ve read, none compares, holds a candle to or rings such gloomy, bleak chords as does Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; all accomplished with an economy of words that is beautiful in its execution.
The story follows a father and son as the they wander, stagger, and grope their way through a burned over, scarred America. Little moves within this incinerated landscape that is smothered in ash driven by a cold wind. The snow is grey. Rivers run thickly clogged with ash and soot. The trees are black skeletons. The pair is heading for the Eastern coast with little hope of finding anything. Anything. Period. They have nothing save a pistol and a handful of bullets to defend themselves against the bands of ravenous ghouls who maraud the roads and heat-buckled Interstates like bizarre, merciless highwaymen. And they have the ragged clothes they’re wearing and a cart of scavenged food. And they have themselves.
I read this book in one take late at night and immediately headed downstairs to kick up the fire and drink some bourbon. I was cold, chilled emotionally, stunned, awe-struck by McCarthy’s words. I mentioned The Road to a singer/songwriter friend and all he could say was “That one put me off my feed for a few days.” Knowing the guy as I do, despite his lyrical, beautiful and often humorous music, I took the comment as high praise for McCarthy’s effort. Dark is dark and some of us have arcane addictions.
The first book I ever read by McCarthy was Blood Meridian. That one knocked me cold with the stark and brutal portrayal of the Southwest with its wicked crew of bizarrely violent Apaches, twisted thieves, derelict cowboys and assorted other human forms of depravity. The language used by McCarthy was without excess, sufficient for its purpose:
He rode back to the camp at the fore of his small column with the chief’s head hanging by its hair from his belt. The men were stringing up scalps on strips of leather whang and some of the dead lay with broad slices of hide cut from their backs to be used for the making of belts and harness. The dead Mexican McGill had been scalped and the bloody skulls were already blackening in the sun…Glanton cursed them on, taking up a lance and mounting the head upon it where it bobbed and leered like a carnival head…
This is the way of it throughout the narrative and clearly Blood Meridian is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is the book like his others, like All The Pretty Horses, a book violent in parts like McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, but also like McMurtry’s novel romantic, heroic and a wide-ranging saga. Blood Meridian is not any of this. The tale is brutal to the point of barbarism, a cautionary story written with mordancy by a man who understands language. In The Road McCarthy has cut away even the scarcely visible fat in Blood Meridian, paired his language to harsh basics, to create a landscape that is so awesome in its depraved starkness, so relentless in its totally blasted horizons that he leaves the reader no room to wander, to escape the horror.
He’d tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down around 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. 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.
Certainly an existence without hope or redemption quite similar to that of Blood Meridian Though in a highly refined fashion.
McCarthy is one of this country’s best writers authoring nine novels including Suttree, Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men. From what I can see, the country in all of his books is no place for old men or those lacking a mad sense of courage. He’s won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award. His author photo depicts an individual of stern background who’s perhaps seen more than he wanted. The ever-popular eternity stare is in evidence.
But there seems to be a slight glimmer of hope or optimism shining faintly in the wind-blown grimness. All along the journey to the coast, despite the horrors and deprivations the father and son encounter, the two happen upon caches of abundance – canned meats, fruits, vegetables, clean water in a cistern, decent clothing. This may not seem like much, but the finds shimmer like gold in the stygian atmosphere. It is remarkable that McCarthy pulls this off, a testament to his skill, while never ceasing in his relentless portrayal of hopelessness.
An example is near the end (and this is giving nothing away) when the boy is taken in by a family living near the road along the oceanfront after the death of his father:
The woman when she saw him put her arms around him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.
I’ve read The Road twice now and marvel at how McCarthy ties all of his story together. The book could easily be read from back to front and around again. I look forward to reading this another time, perhaps when I’m in the middle of a canoe trip on the Yellowstone. Timeless is timeless. McCarthy knows this truth well.