A man and his pregnant spouse awaken in the middle of the night to “a long shear of light and a series of low concussions.” Sensing the worst, the man fills his bathtub with water, and his instincts are borne out. Soon the man, his wife, and his child are survivors of an apocalypse that has banished the sun and left dark dust in the air everywhere. Rather than continue on, the wife kills herself. Partly for fear, partly for love of his child, the man is unable to make himself follow her, and he and his son begin the business of surviving in a new and hostile world.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which follows his radically minimalist postmodern Western, No Country for Old Men, is a brilliant evocation of what the world might be like in the times after civilization ends. Unlike most post-apocalyptic literature, which tends toward unlikely, cookie-cutter fantasies, The Road gives us a bare, impossibly brutal world that feels true. It is a place in which any morsel of food is worth scavenging, in which homes and stores have long since been stripped of any conceivably useful item. In short, there is no more manufacturing or farming, and most of the natural world has been killed off, so all that remains are the leftovers of capitalism, and those are fast running out.
McCarthy makes this world real by giving us the minutia of daily life as the father and son travel south from what was once the northeastern United States in an attempt to find warmer land. McCarthy has long been an author whose books are in tune with the land and the things that lonely, isolated human hands can wring from it, but here he turns his energies toward a landscape different from any he’s previously investigated. It’s full of “charred and limbless trunks of trees” surrounding ash-covered roads and “sagging hands of blind wire strung from blackened lightpoles.” Cities are empty and in ruins as the land reclaims them, there’s cold rain almost every night. One of the few unmolested human constructs that the pair encounters is a “gray and heavy dam” that might stand for thousands more years.
Although McCarthy’s world is modeled on our own earth, the parts of it that are familiar to us feel dislocated. At one point the father discovers a can of Coke for his son.
He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat. For you.
What really drives the dislocation home are the words of the son, asking his father what a Coke is—for what ten-year-old American boy has never seen a Coke before? And also, the way in which Coke has been elevated from late capitalism’s synonym for water to this rare treat that the father wants his son to experience. Though they may come across items that any of us might know about, in the world of The Road these items are in a completely different context.
Though McCarthy’s language is as minimalist as ever and his words still unimpeded by punctuation, here he has exchanged his more baroque flourishes for something simpler. The pair’s journey starts thus: “Late in the year. He hardly knew the month. He thought they had enough food to get through the mountains but there was no way to tell. The pass at the watershed was five thousand feet and it was going to be very cold.” Dialog is delivered in short, declarative sentences and is not announced by quotations or dashes. Often McCarthy dives into the father’s head for brief spurts of thought. “They trudged all day, the boy in silence. By afternoon the slush had melted off the road and by evening it was dry. They didn’t stop. How many miles? Ten, twelve.”
The cumulative effect of this style of narration is a book that feels as though it is propelling the reader forward. This, combined with large print and healthily spaced lines, means that one can read scores of pages from The Road and hardly notice. It’s appropriate, as the father and son’s story is all about forward momentum. Like sharks, their only reason for living is to continue moving; neither of them really believes they’ll find an end to their road, and yet they fight against snow and dirty rain, cannibals and hunger in order to continue down their path.
They find much to horrify on the road. Anyone they might meet is assumed deadly—even when the boy discovers another child, the father hurries his son away as though the other were a mangy dog. Houses, though generally abandoned, are presumed to be literal deathtraps only to be entered under the influence of extreme hunger. Their only weapon is a gun with two bullets (and in a grim sense, those two are already spoken for), so every night the father and son sleep off the road in the brush. Their fires only burn throughout the night when they would be in danger of freezing without them.
These horrors would be considerably less potent in the hands of a lesser writer, but McCarthy’s peculiar imagination knows just what details will deliver the goods. At one point the father and son are wracked with hunger, and the father decides to take a chance and investigate a house. He finds a padlocked door leading into a basement—in other words, paydirt. As the terrified son begs his father to let them leave, the father breaks the lock off with a shovel and wrests the door open.
Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
It takes true creativity to add to the inhumanity of people eating other people, but McCarthy manages it in that man with the cauterized stumps. And yet, in the middle of this horrible image, McCarthy places that mattress. It’s an incredibly pitiful scene, made all the more unbearable by that one gesture of mercy.
As with McCarthy’s books about the American West, The Road’s narrative doesn’t unfold according to the mechanics of plot and suspense; rather, it travels as might a stream of water that bounces off of stones and flows between cracks as it is pulled along by gravity. Recalling The Border Trilogy, the father and son are carried wherever their need for survival takes them, the book mostly consists in describing what they do in order to keep going. What saves this from becoming dull or repetitious is that McCarthy knows how to populate his world with compelling details that continually spark our interest. He makes his barren, frigid earth an engrossing place to watch two lost people wander, and under the power of McCarthy’s pen one believes that this is what it would be like.
Moreover, though McCarthy’s book is almost completely a taut, muscular description of surfaces, there are hints of spirituality and unreliability. At times we’re led to question the father’s sanity, as when the father and boy lay huddled just off the road and there passes a great phalanx of “marchers . . . four abreast . . . all wearing red scarves at their necks . . . carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings” followed by “wagons drawn by slaves in harnesses” and then women, “some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites.” It’s notable that this is one of the few times that McCarthy’s world apes pop culture images of post-apocalypse—it makes one wonder whether the father is just imagining it all because he needs an enemy to be hiding from. The conversation following this appellation casts further doubt on its reality:
Are they gone, Papa?
Yes, they’re gone.
Did you see them?
Were they the bad guys?
Yes, they were the bad guys.
There’s a lot of them, those bad guys.
Yes there are. But they’re gone.
They stood and brushed themselves off, listening to the silence in the distance.
In this exchange, I can hear the sounds of an indulgent, perhaps slightly fearful son, especially in that gratuitous “those bad guys.” Moreover, it’s been days since they two have eaten and the father himself admits the next night that “his head wasnt working right.”
There are also overtones to the effect that the son is actually the Son. This may just be a matter of the father needing to believe in something in order to sustain himself in this horrible world (he also repeatedly reminds his son that they’re “carrying the fire” of civilization), but, imagination or not, this brings questions of spirituality to the novel. Perhaps religious ideas first came to early, early humans who lived in a similarly uncivilized world and imagined God the Father as something like their own earthly fathers.
Though The Road doesn’t rise to the quasi-epic feel of a Blood Meridian, it’s a substantial, accessible work from one of America’s most interesting novelists. Through his scaled-down view of a post-apocalypse American east, McCarthy has discovered a rich, engrossing landscape that is distinctly his own. It’s a horrible pleasure to watch the father and his son make their way through it, even as one remains unsure whether it would be more humane to hope for their survival or hope for their gentle death.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Remainder by Tom McCarthy The narrator of Tom McCarthy’s brilliant and unusual novel, Remainder, is recovering from a horrible accident. “It involved something falling from the sky,” he tells us. “Technology. Parts, bits. That’s all I can divulge.” He can’t tell us more for two reasons. One, he’s not permitted to, because the terms...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by The Quarterly Conversation