The Road: A Bleak Panegyric to Civilization

The Road, a novel by Cormac McCarthy, Vintage International, 2006, 256 pages.

It’s hard to recommend this incredible book. Though gripping, moving, and beautifully written, it is not easy to read. I had to put it down every so often just for the relief of reconnecting with the living world we take for granted. The end credits of the film based on the novel are accompanied not by music, but by the mundane ambience of a suburban neighborhood: people talking, lawnmowers, barking dogs, planes passing overhead — sounds forever lost in the post-apocalyptic world in which McCarthy’s characters struggle — a world so well rendered it is painful to contemplate.

McCarthy’s style is an acquired taste. He never met a metaphor he didn’t like and his Westerns have so much weather one can easily lose track of the plot. This novel is written in a kind of blank verse, with paragraphs structured as stanzas.  My initial reaction was to return the book to the shelf in disgust at what seemed an artsy affectation, but the words captured me. In truth, the abstract style helps make the horrific events in the story bearable. Quotation marks are neither used nor required, since, for the most part, there are only two characters – The Man and his son, The Boy –  and one always knows who is speaking. Potential readers who believe the style might be off-putting are encouraged to listen to the audio book, performed wonderfully by Rupert Degas. Listening to it, one has no idea the printed version is not written as a conventional novel.

An unspecified calamity has devastated the world. Inaugurated by a “long shear of light and then a series of low concussions,” the Apocalypse might well be the aftermath of an asteroid impact like the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Years later, ash continues to fall from the perpetually overcast sky and the earth trembles with aftershocks. The man and boy push a shopping cart filled with their meager provisions through a nightmare landscape of dead forests and looted cities. Hiding in terror from roving gangs of cannibals, they trudge south, where it might be warmer; where there might be…something. The man’s tattered road map taunts them with the names of places that no longer exist. They carry a pistol with two bullets: one for each of them, should they be captured by cannibals. The man drills his son, who is, perhaps, ten, in the art of effective suicide.

The bleak tone is reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s 1957 post nuclear war novel On the Beach, but while Shute’s characters wallow in well-fed self-pity, McCarthy’s man and boy, although starving and freezing, reassure one another that they are “carrying the fire,” that they must not merely survive but remain the good guys. A physician before his world ended, the man has tried to plant the spark of civilization within his son, to teach him a code of ethics that makes him more than a starving animal. The boy takes the lesson to heart and pleads with his father to show kindness to those even more wretched than they. Shaped by his father’s fierce love, the boy radiates angelic goodness even when they are both at death’s door. It sounds corny but McCarthy pulls it off. At the end the reader is convinced that as long as such a child can exist, there is hope, even in the midst of horror.

McCarthy’s subtext is that civilization is as fragile as a soap bubble. We are bound together by an intricate web of trust and cooperation. Snap one strand of that web, and things fall apart with surprising suddenness. Cosmic calamities are not required to end civilization. Something that merely prevented grocery trucks from making their scheduled deliveries for a couple of weeks would do the job. Admirers of the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations might do well to consider this. The roadside reenactment of the Paleolithic Era stopped short of offering a practical demonstration of the sustainability of the socio-economic scheme being advocated, which is, in essence, cannibalism.


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