Sunday, December 24, 2006



In “The Road” a boy and his father lurch across the cold, wretched, wet, corpse-strewn, ashen landscape of a post-apocalyptic world. The imagery is brutal even by Cormac McCarthy’s high standards for despair. This parable is also trenchant and terrifying, written with stripped-down urgency and fueled by the force of a universal nightmare. “The Road” would be pure misery if not for its stunning, savage beauty.

This is an exquisitely bleak incantation — pure poetic brimstone. Mr. McCarthy has summoned his fiercest visions to invoke the devastation. He gives voice to the unspeakable in a terse cautionary tale that is too potent to be numbing, despite the stupefying ravages it describes. Mr. McCarthy brings an almost biblical fury as he bears witness to sights man was never meant to see.

“There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who is not honored here today,” the father says, trying to make his son understand why they inhabit a gray moonscape. “Whatever form you spoke of you were right.” Thus “The Road” keeps pace with the most enterprising doomsayers as death and desperation manifest themselves on every page. And in a perverse miracle it yields one last calamity when it seems that things cannot possibly get worse.

Yet as the boy and man wander, encountering remnants of the lost world and providing the reader with more and more clues about what destroyed it, this narrative is also illuminated by extraordinary tenderness. “He knew only that the child was his warrant,” it says of the father and his mission. “He said: if he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

The father’s loving efforts to shepherd his son are made that much more wrenching by the unavailability of food, shelter, safety, companionship or hope in most places where they scavenge to subsist.

Keeping memory alive is difficult, since the past grows increasingly remote. It is as if these lonely characters are experiencing “the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” The past has become like a place inhabited by the newly blind, all of it slowly slipping away. As for looking toward the future, “there is no later,” the book says starkly. “This is later.”

The ruined setting of “The Road” is strewn with terrible, revealing artifacts. There are old newspapers. (“The curious news. The quaint concerns.”) There is one lone bottle of Coca-Cola, still absurdly fizzy when all else is dust. There are charred corpses frozen in their final postures, like the long-dead man who sits on a porch like “a straw man set out to announce some holiday.” Sometimes these prompt the father to recall “a dull rose glow in the windowglass” at 1:17 in the morning, the moment when the clocks stopped forever.

“The Road” is not concerned with explaining what caused this cataclysm. It is more abstract than that. Instead it becomes a relentless cautionary tale with “Lord of the Flies”-style symbolic impact, marked by a dark fascination with the primal laws of survival. Much of its impact comes from the absolute lawlessness of its backdrop as it undermines the father’s only remaining certitude: that he must keep his boy alive no matter what danger befalls them.

As they move down the metaphorical road of the title, father and son encounter all manner of perils. The weather is bitter, the landscape colorless, the threat of starvation imminent. There is also the occasional interloper or ominous relic, since the road is not entirely abandoned.

The sight of a scorched, shuffling man prompts the boy to ask what is wrong with him; the father simply replies that the man has been struck by lightning. Spear-carrying marchers on the road offer other hints about recent history. Groups of people are stowed away in hidden places as if they were other people’s food supply. In a book filled with virtual zombies and fixated on the living dead, it turns out that they are.

Since the cataclysm has presumably incinerated all dictionaries, Mr. McCarthy’s affinity for words like rachitic and crozzled has as much visceral, atmospheric power as precise meaning. His use of language is as exultant as his imaginings are hellish, a hint that “The Road” will ultimately be more radiant than it is punishing. Somehow Mr. McCarthy is able to hold firm to his pessimism while allowing the reader to see beyond it. This is art that both frightens and inspires.

Although “The Road” is entirely unsentimental, it gives father and son a memory to keep them moving, even if it is the memory of how and why the boy’s mother chose to die. She was pregnant when the world exploded, and the boy was born a few days after she and the man “watched distant cities burn.”

Ultimately she gave up and took a bullet: “She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift.” In a book whose events are isolated and carefully chosen, the appearance of a flare gun late in the story is filled with echoes of her final decision.

The mother’s suicide is one more reason for astonishment at Mr. McCarthy’s final gesture here: an embrace of faith in the face of no hope whatsoever. Coming as it does after such intense moments of despondency, this faith is even more of a leap than it might be in a more forgiving story. It adds immeasurably to the staying power of a book that is simple yet mysterious, simultaneously cryptic and crystal clear.

“The Road” offers nothing in the way of escape or comfort. But its fearless wisdom is more indelible than reassurance could ever be.


For a more than decent summary of the plot of Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, “The Road,” consult the Library of Congress boilerplate that follows the book’s title page: “1. Fathers and sons-Fiction. 2. Voyages and travels-United States-Fiction. 3. Regression (Civilization)-Fiction. 4. Survival skills-Fiction.” For that matter, it’s not a bad imitation of the novel’s style. Using the stripped-down prose that he employed so effectively in his last book, “No Country for Old Men,” McCarthy spins an entire novel around two people, a father and his young son fighting their way through a post-apocalyptic world reduced to cold ashes and ruins. The action is equally minimal. The man and boy are traveling out of the mountains and toward the coast, searching for warmer weather and hoping to find someone neither malign nor crazy with whom they can join forces. McCarthy never says what happened to bring the world to cinders. Nor does he name his characters, or tell us how old the boy is or where they are exactly. He merely posits a world where everything is bombed out and broken beyond repair, soon to be populated by “men who would eat your children in front of your eyes” and looters who look like “shoppers in the commissaries of hell.” Darkness is a perennial McCarthy theme, but here it is in full flower. “The Road” is the logical culmination of everything he’s written.

It is also, paradoxically, his most humane and compassionate book. Father and son are genuinely affectionate toward each other. Each would give his life if it meant the other could live. This is as far as McCarthy has ever gone to acknowledge the goodness in people. And in the light of that relationship, the question that the novel implicitly poses—how much can you subtract from human existence before it ceases to be human?—takes on heartbreaking force.

“The Road” could have been a novella. Almost everything in the story—scrounging for food, hiding from the “Road Warrior”-like evildoers who haunt the highway—happens more than once. But the tedium that creeps in from time to time is integral to the narrative. Hunger and danger and cold are not just one-time obstacles for these pilgrims but things they must confront again and again; their courage lies in their refusal to give in. The boy and his father call themselves “the good guys.” It’s something a father would say to a son he wanted to guide and protect, but the more you see of these two, the more you want to remove the quotes from those words. They’re not ironic. The characters’ lives are gnawed down to the bone: all they have is their love for each other. And that, in the end, suffices.

One measure of a good writer is the ability to surprise. Terse, unsentimental, bleak—McCarthy’s readers have been down that road before. But who would ever have thought you’d call him touching?


Have all of Cormac McCarthy's fictional odysseys been leading to this, a world blasted gray and featureless by human folly and cosmic indifference, inhabited only by pitiless predators and (arguably) lucky survivors? Or is The Road just further rumination from a man who, metaphorically or otherwise, finds himself on unrecognizable terrain in the final years of his life?
Take your pick. The genius of Mc- Carthy's work, whether you find it risible or profound, is in its bold, seamless melding of private revelation, cultural insight, and unabashed philosophizing. Sci-fi divination is new for him, though, and the freshness he brings to this end-of-the-world narrative is quite stunning: It may be the saddest, most haunting book he's ever written, or that you'll ever read.

His previous novel, No Country for Old Men, was nothing if not pre-apocalyptic, and The Road fulfills that bitter promise in spades. Its stripped-down story, however, couldn't be more removed from the doggedly elliptical No Country: A man and his young son trek southwesterly through an unnamed, nuclear-winterized landscape in search of warmth and on the run from bands of cannibalistic outlaws. As the pair scavenge for food and comfort among eerily abandoned towns and withered forests, they provide each other with—just barely—a reason not to lie down and die.

Never one to indulge in explosive action (he's more the propulsive type—"they went on" is this tale's Blood Meridian–like mantra), McCarthy holds back even more than usual here. The milieu—a sprawling, horizonless vale of drifting ash and spindly rubble, "the ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be"—is startling for its lack of customary descriptive detail, and the book is all the more wrenching for it; the degree of ruin might make even Judge Holden blanch. McCarthy underplays the familiar last-man-on-earth pulp accoutrements as well, making The Road more Time of the Wolf than Mad Max, and more Kuroi Ame than either of those (devoid of that novel's debatable reassurance that the world was more or less intact after Hiroshima's incineration).

It's also McCarthy's purest fable yet. The troubled bond that links the man, a compulsive isolationist tyrannized by his fading memories ("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"), and the boy, who longs to stop and make contact with other "good guys" on the road, is key to the book's mythic scope: Its argument exists in the tension between the rank self-centeredness necessary to survive as an individual and the altruism required to survive as a species. As such, it seems as much McCarthy's second response to the West's accelerated social erosion (the frankly bewildered No Country being the first) as a heartsick accounting of irretrievable extinction.

The Road also represents a more personal reckoning, albeit a less angry one than its predecessor. Despite the apocalyptic setting, McCarthy lets down his cynical guard enough to suggest that the future—to say nothing of the present—invariably resembles a wasteland when viewed from the vantage point of someone with an abundance of past. (Not that he's lost his edge; there are plenty of robust allusions to Western lit's better-known Father and Son act here, too.) It's a gentle, compassionate gesture, and hints that this could well be McCarthy's swan song—potential bad news for his fans.

Whether or not that's the case, they should be satisfied with the current offering's characteristic helpings of hypnotic, gut-punching prose and bracing depictions of emotional longing ("She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned" )—qualities McCarthy's detractors seem bizarrely content to underestimate or overlook. Indeed, for all its allegorical underpinnings and stark grandeur, the tender precariousness of The Road's human relationships is what finally makes it such a beautiful, difficult, near perfect work.


Shorn of history and context, Cormac McCarthy's other nine novels could be cast as rungs, with The Road as a pinnacle. This is a very great novel, but one that needs a context in both the past and in so-called post-9/11 America.

We can divide the contemporary American novel into two traditions, or two social classes. The Tough Guy tradition comes up from Fenimore Cooper, with a touch of Poe, through Melville, Faulkner and Hemingway. The Savant tradition comes from Hawthorne, especially through Henry James, Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald. You could argue that the latter is liberal, east coast/New York, while the Tough Guys are gothic, reactionary, nihilistic, openly religious, southern or fundamentally rural.

The Savants' blood line (curiously unrepresentative of Americans generally) has gained undoubted ascendancy in the literary firmament of the US. Upper middle class, urban and cosmopolitan, they or their own species review themselves. The current Tough Guys are a murder of great, hopelessly masculine, undomesticated writers, whose critical reputations have been and still are today cruelly divergent, adrift and largely unrewarded compared to the contemporary Savant school. In literature as in American life, success must be total and contrasted "failure" fatally dispiriting.
But in both content and technical riches, the Tough Guys are the true legislators of tortured American souls. They could include novelists Thomas McGuane, William Gaddis, Barry Hannah, Leon Rooke, Harry Crews, Jim Harrison, Mark Richard, James Welch and Denis Johnson. Cormac McCarthy is granddaddy to them all. New York critics may prefer their perfidy to be ignored, comforting themselves with the superlatives for All the Pretty Horses, but we should remember that the history of Cormac McCarthy and his achievement is not an American dream but near on 30 years of neglect for a writer who, since The Orchard Keeper in 1965, produced only masterworks in elegant succession. Now he has given us his great American nightmare.

The Road is a novel of transforming power and formal risk. Abandoning gruff but profound male camaraderie, McCarthy instead sounds the limits of imaginable love and despair between a diligent father and his timid young son, "each other's world entire". The initial experience of the novel is sobering and oppressive, its final effect is emotionally shattering.

America - and presumably the world - has suffered an apocalypse the nature of which is unclear and, faced with such loss, irrelevant. The centre of the world is sickened. Earthquakes shunt, fire storms smear a "cauterised terrain", the ash-filled air requires slipshod veils to cover the mouth. Nature revolts. The ruined world is long plundered, with canned food and good shoes the ultimate aspiration. Almost all have plunged into complete Conradian savagery: murdering convoys of road agents, marauders and "bloodcults" plunder these wastes. Most have resorted to cannibalism. One passing brigade is fearfully glimpsed: "Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. The phalanx following carried spears or lances ... and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each." Despite this soul desert, the end of God and ethics, the father still defines and endangers himself by trying to instil moral values in his son, by refusing to abandon all belief.

All of this is utterly convincing and physically chilling. The father is coughing blood, which forces him and his son, "in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep", on to the treacherous road southward, towards a sea and - possibly - survivable, milder winters. They push their salvage in a shopping cart, wryly fitted with a motorcycle mirror to keep sentinel over that road behind. The father has a pistol, with two bullets only. He faces the nadir of human and parental existence; his wife, the boy's mother, has already committed suicide. If caught, the multifarious reavers will obviously rape his son, then slaughter and eat them both. He plans to shoot his son - though he questions his ability to do so - if they are caught. Occasionally, between nightmares, the father seeks refuge in dangerously needy and exquisite recollections of our lost world.

They move south through nuclear grey winter, "like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world", sleeping badly beneath filthy tarpaulin, setting hidden campfires, exploring ruined houses, scavenging shrivelled apples. We feel and pity their starving dereliction as, despite the profound challenge to the imaginative contemporary novelist, McCarthy completely achieves this physical and metaphysical hell for us. "The world shrinking down to a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true."

Such a scenario allows McCarthy finally to foreground only the very basics of physical human survival and the intimate evocation of a destroyed landscape drawn with such precision and beauty. He makes us ache with nostalgia for restored normality. The Road also encapsulates the usual cold violence, the biblical tincture of male masochism, of wounds and rites of passage. His central character can adopt a universal belligerence and misanthropy. In this damnation, rightly so, everyone, finally, is the enemy. He tells his son: "My job is to take care of you. I was appointed by God to do that ... We are the good guys." The other uncomfortable, tellingly national moment comes when the father salvages perhaps the last can of Coke in the world. This is truly an American apocalypse.

The vulnerable cultural references for this daring scenario obviously come from science fiction. But what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy's late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description. As has been said before, McCarthy is worthy of his biblical themes, and with some deeply nuanced paragraphs retriggering verbs and nouns that are surprising and delightful to the ear, Shakespeare is evoked. The way McCarthy sails close to the prose of late Beckett is also remarkable; the novel proceeds in Beckett-like, varied paragraphs. They are unlikely relatives, these two artists in old age, cornered by bleak experience and the rich limits of an English pulverised down through despair to a pleasingly wry perfection. "He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms out-held for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old chronicle."

Set piece after set piece, you will read on, absolutely convinced, thrilled, mesmerised with disgust and the fascinating novelty of it all: breathtakingly lucky escapes; a complete train, abandoned and alone on an embankment; a sudden liberating, joyous discovery or a cellar of incarcerated amputees being slowly eaten. And everywhere the mummified dead, "shrivelled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth".

All the modern novel can do is done here. After the great historical fictions of the American west, Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, The Road is no artistic pinnacle for McCarthy but instead a masterly reclamation of those midnight-black, gothic worlds of Outer Dark (1968) and the similarly terrifying but beautiful Child of God (1973). How will this vital novel be positioned in today's America by Savants, Tough Guys or worse? Could its nightmare vistas reinforce those in the US who are determined to manipulate its people into believing that terror came into being only in 2001? This text, in its fragility, exists uneasily within such ill times. It's perverse that the scorched earth which The Road depicts often brings to mind those real apocalypses of southern Iraq beneath black oil smoke, or New Orleans - vistas not unconnected with the contemporary American regime.

One night, when the father thinks that he and his son will starve to death, he weeps, not about the obvious but about beauty and goodness, "things he'd no longer any way to think about". Camus wrote that the world is ugly and cruel, but it is only by adding to that ugliness and cruelty that we sin most gravely. The Road affirms belief in the tender pricelessness of the here and now. In creating an exquisite nightmare, it does not add to the cruelty and ugliness of our times; it warns us now how much we have to lose. It makes the novels of the contemporary Savants seem infantile and horribly over-rated. Beauty and goodness are here aplenty and we should think about them. While we can.



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