Knopf, 2006, ISBN 0307265439, 256 Pages, Hardcover $24.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Review by Benjamin Whitmer
After Cormac McCarthy’s relatively tame and immensely popular Border Trilogy, No Country for Old Men, released last year, seemed to herald a sanguine return to the grisliness of his first five novels. Thankfully The Road continues that trend. As we follow our unnamed protagonist and his son on their journey through a post-apocalyptic Appalachia, hunted by butchers and barely scrabbling out an existence, it’s nice to find one’s self in the country of cannibals and dead babies again. McCarthy’s literary career has been constructed of American atrocities both major and minor, and The Road closes the deal, imagining a world entirely consumed in a holocaust, a final “long shear of light.” The vegetation has been burned to ash, the cities razed, and the few remnants of humanity still straggling along have been hacked down to their basest instincts.
There isn’t much in the way of a plot to The Road. In a world this stripped down, there’s little room for such quaint preoccupations. The man and the boy head south along their unnamed road, hoping for warmer weather and drifting from one episode of naked survival to the next. The boy is sickly, always hungry, always cold; and his sole protector, his father, is coughing up blood. His mother has already committed suicide, overwhelmed by the horror of cannibalism and the grinding misery of their existence. Suicide permeates the novel the man carries a handgun with two bullets, wondering over the sleeping body of his son whether he can do what’s necessary when they are finally caught by the cannibals roaming the road.
Even McCarthy’s prose echoes the world’s shearing. The rhetorical excesses that so delighted and maddened readers are, for the most part, gone. His usually spare punctuation has been reduced to periods and the occasional apostrophe. Nevertheless, he is no less the stylist his honed sentences convey the careful impression of a language reduced to its indispensable elements. It’s entirely imaginable as a post-apocalyptic English: all the superfluity burned away, all flourish made irrelevant in the day-to-day business of survival.
If all this talk of apocalypse makes The Road sound like a Mad Maxish genre novel, that’s because it is of a sort. All of McCarthy’s novels have been reconstructions of one genre or another: westerns, thrillers, Southern gothics. As David Holloway argues in The Late Modernism of Cormac McCarthy, few authors are as dedicated to the art of pastiche as McCarthy. It’s a debt he acknowledges in the first of two interviews his agent managed to wrangle out of him: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” he remarks. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”
The Road is no exception, not only in its debt to the genres of horror and science fiction, but also in its acknowledgment of McCarthy’s influences. The most obvious is Portuguese novelist José Saramago’s similarly apocalyptic Blindness, a connection reinforced by the opening paragraph of The Road, which describes the aftermath of whatever holocaust consumed the world as “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
McCarthy’s tendency for pastiche does more than invest his work with a literary gamesmanship. By pulling together an ever-shifting assemblage of references, he constructs the bones of his world while offering a critique of its sources. So while one may identify The Road’s preoccupation with the preference of suicide over rape and consumption by savages as one of the more virulently racist tropes of the classic “Indian-hating” western, its usage here imparts a new horror, even as it calls into question the over-arching metaphor of savagism. After all, in The Road, the savages are us. Likewise, when the title of Kris Kristofferson’s song “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” pops up as the man ponders the fate of his son, it conveys a new poignancy, striking the reader as a wayward remnant of the pre-apocalypse. This is the effect of many of McCarthy’s borrowings in The Road. Unlike the playful vigor imparted by his pastiche-work in former novels, here it conveys a draining of vitality, as if these rags of meaning are all that remain to cover the naked desolation of the world he’s created. It is a beautifully achieved illusion, and a testament to the seamlessness of McCarthy’s craft.
As bleak as the novel is, it’s also funnier than one might expect. Granted, it generally takes a grisly sense of humor to properly appreciate McCarthy, but that’s what makes his humor so effective. The funniest bits of The Road are found in the viciously sharp dialogue, particularly in scenes where the man and the boy encounter other stragglers on the road. The most important of these is an encounter with a wandering Melvillian prophet/madman, Ely, whom the man is coaxed into feeding by the boy. A primary source of tension in the novel is whether there are other good guys to be found on the road. The man is unwilling to hazard any exposure to find out, while the boy desires to renew some sort of social compact with other travelers. In an indirect way, the conversation with Ely resolves that tension in the boy’s favor. Even the act of conversing with an outsider infuses the novel with a new vitality, reinvigorating both man and boy. Moreover, Ely provides a much more direct answer. When the man asks him how he survives on the road, Ely responds that other travelers have been providing him food. When the man scoffs at the idea, Ely points out that he himself has done so.
To call attention to The Road’s pastiche-work and humor is not to imply that it isn’t deadly serious. In fact, both lend the novel a heft it might otherwise lack, shielding it from charges of sentimentality and providing hints to the most fruitful reading. McCarthy’s novels are all variations on similar themes, and The Road expands the central trope of its predecessor, No Country for Old Men, which hinges on Sheriff Bell’s relationship with his estranged father. It is an estrangement that is reconciled, at least in dream, when Bell envisions his father riding past him through the mountains, “carrying fire in a horn . . . and in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.” This trope of “carrying the fire” becomes central to The Road, as the man and the boy seek to establish their place in the overwhelming bleakness of their existence:
We're going to be okay, arent we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
Because we're carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we're carrying the fire.
This is what the pair are left with: the transmission of some small portion of meaning from generation to generation in a blasted world. The post-apocalyptic landscape they move through is stark and brutal, but they keep each other alive; and more, they hang onto the dignity necessary to make remaining alive worthwhile. They don’t kill, they don’t steal from the living, they help where it’s possible to do so, and, most importantly in the novel’s symbolic order, they don’t eat other people.
Of course, the road is fraught with many counterexamples. McCarthy refers to them as “roadagents,” or more succinctly, “bad guys.” They enslave the meek, they consume their children, and they torture and butcher anything that gets in their way. Theirs is the domain of survival at any cost, and they are the norm in McCarthy’s novels, as they have been the norm throughout American history. As West Texas novelist and historian, Larry McMurtry (who is often compared unfavorably to McCarthy), points out in his recent book on frontier massacre, O What a Slaughter, nearly every historical massacre has been a pre-emptive strike invoked in the name of survival. As the abattoir we’ve made of Iraq reminds us, little has changed. Whatever has consumed the world in The Road, it is linked to McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian, and the relentless, westering holocaust led by McCarthy’s avatar of Indian-hating and empire-building, judge Holden.
In a novel that speaks explicitly to the transmission of humanity between generations, it’s worth noting that this is the first of Cormac McCarthy’s books to return to the American Appalachia in nigh thirty years. The man and boy pass through Knoxville, McCarthy’s old stomping grounds and the setting of his Southern masterpiece, Suttree:
The long concrete sweeps of the interstate exchanges like the ruins of a vast funhouse against the distant murk . . . The mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wire . . . The only thing that moved in the streets was blowing ash. They crossed the high concrete bridge over the river. A dock below. Small pleasure boats half sunken in the gray water. Tall stacks downriver amid the soot.
This is made even more interesting when the man leads the boy to south Knoxville to show him his childhood home where McCarthy’s own can be found on Martin Mill Pike. The house is empty, and the presence of the world that no longer exists spooks both father and son:
This is where I used to sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child's imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might off themselves but never the one to be. He pushed open the closet door half expecting to find his childhood things. Raw cold daylight fell through from the roof. Gray as his heart.
We should go, Papa. Can we go?
Yes. We can.
I know. I'm sorry.
I'm really scared.
It's all right. We shouldnt have come.
It’s tempting here to discuss McCarthy’s oft-considered estrangement from his own father, as well as his dedication of The Road to his young son. However, it’s a temptation that’s best to avoid. Not only does it do a certain violence to McCarthy’s own wishes, but it may needlessly confuse one’s reading of The Road. Like few other American authors, everything needed is on the page. The intertextual nature of McCarthy’s work creates a referential constellation of meaning that makes the metaphor of carrying the fire as true a description of McCarthy’s literary sensibilities as it is of the man and the boy’s relationship with their progenitors. Besides which, there is an unbridgeable distance between generations. We are all aliens from our progenitors, as we are to our progeny:
He turned and looked at the boy. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy himself he was an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct the child's pleasure he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.
In No Country for Old Men, direct communication to Bell’s father figure has been ruptured, seemingly irreparably, until its final revelations. The Road progresses similarly. Early on, the man picks up a phone in an abandoned gas station and dials his father’s number, but the line is dead. Then, later, in a fit of desperation, he gives us the following: “Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.”
This rings true to the reader, especially in the world McCarthy has created, where even symbols of evil are proclaimed to be of our own concoction (and are, literally, in that each evil found in The Road has been borrowed from other sources). But as the novel leads us to its final revelation, we learn that this is not entirely true, that there is a way to communicate with our progenitors. In fact, according to the novel, we must the stories they tell us construct the world’s meaning and constitute our humanity. This is even extrapolated into divine law: “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all time.” Ultimately, The Road suggests that no matter how bleak our existence, we must live life as if it has meaning. As if our progenitors are watching; as if there is a line separating the good guys from the bad guys.
That may not seem much to some readers, and it may seem hopelessly sentimental to others, but it’s certainly more than most of us can live up to on many a day. As most parents know, we do wrong and we have wrong done to us, but that doesn’t allow us to end the narrative we wind through our generations. We continue down the road, doing the best we can because we have no other choice. As the man tells his son, “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don't give up.”
Many recent reviewers have wondered if The Road is McCarthy’s swan song. This seems unlikely. According to a recent Vanity Fair interview, he has several other novels near completion. Here’s hoping that’s the case. In the words of Stéphane Mallarmé, “there is no explosion except a book,” and The Road is a book in the way few are. It’s beautifully written, hugely moving, and every portion of meaning that can be taken from it is as hard-won and necessary to the reader as it is to the characters. To call The Road Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece may be to do McCarthy a disservice. The Road is its own book, as different from Blood Meridian or Suttree as Moby Dick is from The Confidence Man. But it is a masterpiece, nonetheless.
23 October 2006
Cormac McCarthy Society The homepage of the Cormac McCarthy Society.
The Road The publisher’s promotional page for The Road.