Cormac McCarthy is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest living writers. Though he published his first novel over 50 years ago, he didn’t take his place among the pantheon of US novelists until the western, Blood Meridian, in 1985. Since then, All the Pretty Horses (1992), No Country for Old Men (2005), and The Road (2006), among others, have earned him a National Book Award, a James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and a Pulitzer Prize. Now 85 yrs. old, he will reportedly release his 11th novel, The Passenger, in March 2019.
The Road is not an easy read. Its premise is that an unspecified cataclysmic event, most likely a nuclear war (“The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”), has left the world essentially a blasted and sterile cinder. The days are grey and cold; the landscape is burned; the cities melted; and just about everyone dead. The two protagonists, a father and perhaps eight-year-old son, born just after the catastrophe hit, and not long before his mother took her own life rather than deal with the horrors of survival in such a violent, hostile and hopeless world, remain unnamed throughout. The novel recounts their desperate attempt merely to survive from one day to the next, as they follow what’s left of the roads, and try to make their way to the coast, and to the south, where they hope to find sustenance, or at least warmth. They push in a shopping cart what meagre supplies they have managed to scrounge from deserted houses and farms, and already ransacked supermarkets. They spend the freezing nights as far away from the road as they can, to conceal themselves from armed groups of marauders, “men who would eat your children in front of your eyes”.
McCarthy is sometimes heralded as a successor to Faulkner inasmuch as they are both exponents of the Southern Gothic subgenre of American fiction. Certainly there are dark, Faulknerian elements throughout the bleak terrain of this novel. One thinks particularly of As I Lay Dying, and the sometimes grotesque single-mindedness of the Bundren family dragging their mother’s coffin through fire and flood to a far-off graveyard. Though, to be frank, there are some passages in The Road that are far, far more harrowing than anything you will find in Faulkner. As the title of his previous novel, No County for Old Men, attests, McCarthy is no stranger to allusion. In addition to Faulkner, one hears Hemingway in the matter-of-fact reporting of the day’s repeated routines, and perhaps even Defoe in the endless lists of another solitary survivor, Crusoe. McCarthy also shares, it must be conceded, Hemingway’s male-centric perspective: women in The Road are tertiary characters, and, it is implied, possibly reduced to being the means to an unimaginably horrific end. ‘Post-Feminist Fatherhood’ is perhaps the best possible spin one could put on McCarthy’s handling of gender in this 21st century work. If there is, in the plot, an oblique reference to Homer, The Road is nevertheless more Waiting for Godot than The Odyssey – Odysseus eventually makes it back to Ithaca.
Though it is Godot without the comedy. This is the bleakest of worlds in which the rain “smells like wet ashes”; in which when the son asks his father, “What’s the bravest thing you ever did?” he answers “Getting up this morning”; in which, though there is absolutely no possibility of hope – they simply don’t have the strength for it – there is, at least, revelation and epiphany:
“He walked out in the grey light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
No, The Road does not offer humour, or character development, or a complex and varied plot, or much of what readers typically turn to novels for. What it does have – in deep layers, and in spite of the unspeakable horrors of its setting – is love. Both the indefatigable love the father has for his child (which McCarthy suggested, in the only interview he has ever given, might be autobiographical), and the more spiritual love McCarthy apparently has for a natural past, perhaps now under threat:
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
Love, then. And a remarkable prose style that, in all the darkness, offers a light of its own – like an acetylene torch.