Cormac McCarthy — The Road

December 4, 2008 at 12:23 pm 3 comments

It’s cold, it’s rainy, big grey clouds are whirring past my window: what better time to write about Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic smash hit, The Road (2006)?

I avoided it for a long time, on the grounds that it sounds for all the world like a grotesque hybrid of B-movie science-fiction and Disneyfied schmaltz. The end of the world is here — will a father and his cute small child have the perseverance to get to the end of the road and make a better life? It sounds awful. But it isn’t. As Michael Chabon notes in a wonderful review, McCarthy’s novel is a genre hybrid, but not the sort you’d expect. This is a horror/epic — a nightmare odyssey.


The book follows an anonymous father and son crossing the underworld: an American landscape stripped of all life in a catastrophe years past that is never described. They must scavenge canned food wherever they find it among the long-deserted habitations. They must never stop moving. They must never give up. They must keep alive the hope that at the end of the road lies something better. McCarthy’s debt to Homer is clear.

But the hellish scenarios our heroes confront along the way are drawn from pure horror, and it’s this ever-present threat of grisly death that makes The Road unputdownable. In short, our heroes seem to be the only two humans left alive not sold on the idea of cannibalism. They must fend off not only evil, but also the temptation to do evil themselves:

We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving.
We’re starving now.
You said we werent.
I said we werent dying. I didnt say we werent starving.
But we wouldnt.
No. We wouldnt.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire?
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

These brilliantly realized father/son dialogues constitute a big chunk of the book, and are by far McCarthy’s greatest achievement here: they give the book its plausibility, its immediacy, its momentum — they elevate the book above every other literary post-apocalypse I’ve encountered. For once, here is a disaster scenario in which real people (not Tom Cruise) have survived, and you can sense battles for survival raging in their very conversations. What’s at stake is the survival of morality, the survival of faith in a better future, and, most strikingly, the survival of language. Names have already gone. Natural kinds are going. The boy, who was born after the apocalypse, knows a different world. One of my favourite moments in the book comes when the man has just explained to the boy what is meant by “as the crow flies”:

They sat for a long time. They sat on their folded blankets and watched the road in both directions. No wind. Nothing. After a while the boy said: There’s not any crows. Are there?
Just in books.
Yes. Just in books.
I didnt think so.

It’s only by telling the boy about crows that the man can sustain “crow” as a referring term. As the man observes, the world is still full of books — but they don’t mean anything any more. Take this passage:

The country went from pine to liveoak and pine. Magnolias. Trees as dead as any. He picked up one of the heavy leaves and crushed it in his hand to powder and let the powder sift through his fingers.

Little descriptive vignettes like this illuminate every page. But one is struck by the thought that, once this man is gone (and we get the sense, right from the start, that he is unlikely to last past these 300 pages), who else will pick out the “pines” and the “liveoaks” and the “magnolias” in that scene? The matter itself is still there, but the categories, the concepts, the way human reason carved up the world — that’s what is fading. This makes McCarthy’s apocalypse perhaps the most complete in all of literature, and the most terrifying.


Entry filed under: Book Reviews, McCarthy Cormac. Tags: , , , , , , .

W. G. Sebald — The Rings of Saturn Penelope Fitzgerald — The Beginning of Spring

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Candy Schultz  |  December 15, 2008 at 11:55 am

    And this one I have but cannot bring myself to read as it sounds too likely with the likes of al Qeda(sp?) running around.

  • 2. rew2019  |  March 24, 2009 at 8:47 am

    its interesting ……nice work

  • 3. Marilynne Robinson — Gilead « underthought  |  June 29, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    […] 9, 2008 A lot of great novels are dispiriting — I don’t ever remember coming across a great novel so thoroughly spiriting as […]

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