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Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”


Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Road may be the most terrifying, heartbreaking and soul-crushing book I have ever read. And it is a love story.

“The man” and “the boy” – we never learn their names – are among the few survivors left in America (and presumably the world) after an apocalypse. “The road” they are on is a highway heading south; McCarthy never really defines it but several hints indicate “the road” is one of the north-south Interstate highways cutting through the Great Smoky Mountains.

The carnage and conditions McCarthy describes – whole buildings melted by heat, a darkness that perpetually blots out the sun, and sooty air that requires survivors to wear masks – suggest the nuclear winter following a massive conflagration. All vegetation and animals, save for small pockets of humans, have perished. This environment was the cause of my one major distraction: not even spiders or cockroaches survive – not even kudzu, which McCarthy explicitly tells us is dead. As any southerner knows, nothing can kill kudzu. So how come humans were not wiped out?

“The Road”

Cormac McCarthy

Yet the visceral power of McCarthy’s storytelling overwhelms any comfort I might have found in the unreality of the situation. The idea that “this couldn’t possibly happen” gives way to how terrifyingly real this world is for these people. So perhaps some insects and plants could or should be alive somewhere: that does not matter because, right now, we are with a man and his young son who are starving and freezing to death, pushing a cart down a highway, and under constant peril from other desperate survivors.

The man is resourceful, but plausibly so, like many of characters in earlier McCarthy novels, and he knows how to do many things. Or if he does not know, he pauses and puzzles on a problem until he figures it out. He knows the value of just a bit of gasoline and concocts a method to arduously extract the last few ounces from a long-exhausted filling-station tank. With only one bullet left in his revolver, he carves some fake bullets so that the other chambers do not look empty to anyone he points the gun at. He knows better than to risk eating canned goods that, though sealed, may have spoiled. He and the boy are starving, but they will not die from food-poisoning. His is an intelligence driven by necessity.

Even as the man proves especially adept at gathering in a land where nothing grows and the food stocks have long been scavenged, he has to expend even more thought and energy at avoiding the hunters. For many if not most of the other survivors have taken to cannibalism – and what other choice do they have? – some even forming into fascist-like brigades. The fear felt by the man and the boy is palpable when others – man-eaters or not (for how do we know?) – appear in the otherwise desolate landscape.

Is it better to die by fire or ice, to be slaughtered by cannibals or to take one’s own life before being killed? The man’s wife, we learn in a hazy flashback, took her life instead of enduring the struggle the man and the boy face; she even taunted the man for not doing the same. She clearly would have preferred death in the conflagration that killed off most of humanity, and it is a calculation that is hard to argue with. There are even times when it appears the man is acutely aware his wife made the correct choice. Except….

Except for the boy. And the relationship between the boy and the man is the locus of a heartbreaking love story amid the terror.

If the man is an evolved survivalist, the boy is all innocence. He was born shortly after the apocalypse and is clearly older than five or six but just as obviously not yet a teenager. He is attentive and understands without completely accepting everything the man teaches him: Why they cannot share their food with another pitiful soul. Why it is dangerous to try to help a stray little boy who seems to all alone. Because the boy’s fear is almost paralyzing while the man’s fear is the engine for hyper-vigilance and self-preservation, the slow-dawning horror is that the man is going to see his son die.

And yet the situation is more terrifying than that. As we gradually learn, the man and the boy are not only on the cusp of starving or freezing to death or being murdered: the man is also dying – a casualty of pneumonia or radiation sickness or some other malady that afflicts him with a cough which prevents a decent night’s sleep even when he’s exhausted. And he eventually coughs up blood. The man does not fear death itself, but he is afraid of leaving the boy alone in a world for which he is too good.

As ghastly as it would be to watch his son die, the man knows that if he dies first he will leave behind an innocent who lacks not only his survival skills, experience and knowledge, but who also does not possess the will to leave others to die so that he, the boy, can live.

Therein lays a hint at a deeper layer to the story. More than once the man refers to the boy as “the one” and similar other language. Does this mean he knows – or is deluded into believing – that the boy is a savior for this nightmare world? Or does it mean merely that he is part of the hope for a species that may prove capable of saving itself if only it can keep alive some goodness? Is McCarthy repudiating the Apocalypse – the end of life on earth – or defying this particular apocalypse, a man-made disaster that may not prove terminal for the species? Or is it all just despair, leaving both the man and the boy – and all the others – doomed?

I don’t think the ending settles these questions, and the book is better – and more powerful – for it. It is not so much not knowing what happens to the survivors that preys on the imagination as knowing what could happen to them.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 4:12 PM | Permalink

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