Sons and fathers are central to Cormac McCarthy’s novels. So much so that you could say most of his books are about what it means to be a man – and if, in becoming a man, tenderness can survive? That theme and the power of death loom through his work, great, churning, masculine universes overflowing with Old Testament savagery and a primal mysticism indebted to the blood-drenched history of the American West.
To live in Cormac McCarthy’s world is to certainly know death in all its manifestations: from nature and wolves to man-made acts of evil or necessity, when good men do bad things to survive. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) was high noon for this. A psychotic dream across the page, Sam Peckinpah meets William Faulkner, its writing felt more like lava than language.
The literary critic Harold Bloom acclaimed McCarthy on its release as one of America’s foremost important living writers alongside Don DeLillo, Phillip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. But it wasn’t till All the Pretty Horses (1992) that he reached the best-seller lists. Devotees turned away, calling it too sentimental. Last year’s No Country For Old Men (2005), a genre thriller set, unusually for him, in the present, was similarly canned as McCarthy-Lite. It too became a best seller and was optioned for film rights by the Coen Brothers.
Given how foreboding McCarthy is, even his supposedly lightweight stuff is tough enough to wind most readers badly. No Country for Old Men, the tale of a drug deal gone wrong, just moved at a faster, leaner clip than his older books, turning McCarthy’s war horse into a hot rod. It nonetheless added to malcontent amongst hard core fans who felt the old man was going soft, crowd pleasing, cleaning up his grim act for the popcorn theatres.
McCarthy’s delivery of The Road barely one year later puts paid to that idea in spades as he unloads the tale of a man and his son stumbling through a post-apocalyptic landscape that might once have been America: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”
Soon after a woman gives birth to a son before she goes blind from radioactive poisoning and walks off to commit suicide. These events and others are glimpsed in truncated flashbacks, startling images that play on the mind. The father, later unable to sleep, lies “awake in the dark with the uncanny taste of peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mind.” Most of The Road is his story. An end-of-the-world misery causes him to reflect “each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins.”
We follow father and son as they travel toward the coast, fleeing the onset of winter. They move by foot, pushing a cart, scavenging through empty houses and destroyed cities, eluding gangs reduced to cannibalism and sub-human madness. Everywhere is burnt and grey, marked with ash. “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”
Neither the man nor the boy is given a name. But the fretful tenderness and constant fear gives animal urgency to their long march. It is soon established what the father must do if they are in danger of being captured. “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?”
McCarthy cultivates a chill in you with those words, and with it an echo of Abraham’s plight in the Bible when God demanded his son as a sacrifice. In this world, of course, there is no God but for McCarthy, and his authorial eye holds little joy for where we are headed as a species. Ten pages into this book, I was depressed, even troubled by its tone. But there’s a momentum that pulls you on nonetheless, a momentum that might partly be identified as hope.
Structurally, McCarthy also maintains the pace by keeping each scene barely more than a paragraph long. This accentuates The Road’s impressionistic power, adding to its rhythm, as if the book were not composed of sections but stanzas in a poem, the metaphysical footsteps of his characters, beat by beat in a terrible dream.
Every time father or son moves more than a few feet away from each other, a panic intrudes as you read. It is the tense chord of the lost child suspended in your heart, the worst thing about to happen, and McCarthy strums it again and again. Few will read The Road without running to their own children and holding them close. Few will read it without a worry for the world they inherit. In this book, it’s a fate worse than death. “Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being in you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him towards you. Kiss him. Quickly.”
Amid all this, the boy and his father attempt to survive, and more than that, hang on to their humanity. Lost and starving, the father promises they will never revert to cannibalism, to what the others are like. “We’re the good guys,” he says repeatedly. Though we’ve already seen the father’s protective ruthlessness in action, all the while the boy serves as his conscience, a feeble shaft of light in all the ash and blackness. The father likewise preserves something in the boy and that emerges to be nothing less than love. If you can hold back the tears when that revelation comes, you will be made of stern stuff indeed.
Touted as something of a post-September 11 novel by the publisher, The Road actually harks as much to the disturbing imagery of the 1991 Basra road massacre in the First Gulf War and more recent Iraqi traumas. In The Road, the father and son pass by refugees slaughtered by some form of explosion, “Figures half mired in the black top, clutching themselves, mouths howling.” Another scene echoes the Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in protest at the Vietnam War. Another, when McCarthy teeters on the edge of self-parody, seems part Mad Max meets the Civil War. The point is McCarthy has studied the imagery of American violence and put his best efforts to evoking its horrors at home in his spare and disturbing prose.
Looking back to No Country For Old Man, you can see how McCarthy’s experiment with a stripped down, script-like approach has taken him on into this prayerful minimalism now, paring his language down and scene construction down to essences in The Road. Something of Samuel Beckett emerges in this. Beneath that are all the old archetypal figures that work on McCarthy’s fiction, the ever-present shadow of Faulkner, the remnant American machismo and alcoholic scents of rage that have marked his novels as kin to the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and, a little more laterally if you appreciate the poetry and surreal energy in his language, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, respectively.
McCarthy, now 73, has a seven year old son of his own. It’s possible to read The Road as a love letter to his child, a dark adieu. I’m not sure of the conclusion, its sudden irradiating burst into faith and colour, which comes too quickly and briefly to satisfy. But perhaps that is a truth of its own. “He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.”