Cormac McCarthy’s work is known for its detailed focus on the American South-West, its graphic violence, and its pithy, minimally punctuated prose. New Yorker literary critic James Wood has lauded him as ‘one of the greatest observers of landscape.’ He is widely touted as Faulkner’s successor, and both the subject matter and lexicon of his novels are as fixedly male-centric as Hemingway’s. The Road, for which McCarthy won a Pulitzer in 2007, is as bleak, confronting and gory as you’d expect from an author whose previous novels feature a violent necrophile as a protagonist (Lester Ballard in Child of God, 1973), a gang of scalphunters (The Blood Meridian, 1985) and a psychopathic hitman (No Country for Old Men, 2005).
In a dead, bitingly cold America, a man and his young boy walk along the old roads, interstate routes, heading south. As in The Blood Meridian, in which the protagonist is referred to only as ‘the kid’, the father and son are never named. The novel is set several years after a fiery apocalypse has ravaged the land, killing everything, melting the tar roads and covering the country with a pall of ash. The numbers of survivors have dwindled significantly, and any human encounter is potential danger. The boy – who has no living memory of any time before – was born to a woman who has long since died. Their story alternates between hope and despair, spoils and starvation. Between each fortuitous discovery of more food – in a well-stocked hidden bunker, old apples in a dead orchard, unpilfered tins in long-abandoned and well-looted houses – there are interminable days of weakness and desperation. On they trudge, trying to reach with coast with the aid of a rotting, fragmented map, ‘treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.’
The old world is all but lost to the man – slowly fading from his memory as the years pass – and totally ‘alien’ to his son. McCarthy renders this slow disappearance exquisitely. At recognisable places, the familiar yet irrevocably transformed landscape recalls memories of the life that used to abound. At night, the man has ‘siren dreams’ about birds and flowering woods, but once awake he lies
there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived long enough the world at least would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.
The Road is technically simple yet a challenge to read. It presents without flourish bleak images one isn’t likely to encounter in comfortable civilised society. What is gruesome to us is commonplace to the man: ‘He’d seen it all before. Shapes of dried blood in the stubble grass and gray coils of viscera…’ and ‘a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes.’ All this gore highlights the terrible yet unavoidable truth about what humans are capable of doing to each other, which has been exemplified by real atrocities dating from time immemorial. Thievery, slavery, murder, rape as a weapon of war, cannibalism.
Unlike other post-apocalyptic books of the suspend-your-disbelief/zombie variety, The Road poses realistic questions about morality and forces one to consider how one would act given such difficult extremes. We discover, for example, that the man’s dead partner, the boy’s mother, died by suicide, preferring that to the alternative:
Sooner or later they will catch and kill us…They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant.
The possibility of being caught weighs heavily on the man, who has taught his son how to act if the event so arises, in a moving and devastating passage:
He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it…If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard.
The central issue The Road addresses is the matter of life and death, of what or who makes a life worth living. McCarthy, in infrequent past interviews, has said that the author’s preoccupation should be with death. Death pervades the thoughts and dialogue of his characters. After each setback, what hope drives the man and child to plod on? Death is a tempting option, and one that was irresistible for the mother:
We used to talk about death, she said. We don’t anymore. Why is that?
I dont know.
It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.
I wouldnt leave you.
I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.
Death is not a lover.
Oh yes he is.
As a reader, like the father and son, you go on despite yourself, fuelled by the promise of their redemption, yet all the while plagued by the fear it is impossible.
by Cormac McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006