The violence of men has always been the great sucking undertow of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. In 1968’s Outer Dark and 1985’s Blood Meridian, men circled back and back to their most primal natures, as if American history—begun in anguish and bloodshed—could only end that way. With his latest novel, The Road, McCarthy reaches the ignoble finale of this regression. Swift, black, beautiful and brutal, here is a tale without a speck of hope.
As the story begins, civiliza- tion has been destroyed by what sounds like a nuclear Holocaust. (“A long shear of light,” McCarthy describes, “and then a series of low concussions.”) The United States has been demolished, its landscape left incapable of supporting life. The woods are denuded, rivers turned to slurries of ash. A father and son travel south across this blighted, burning moonscape in search of shelter.
Tales of the apocalypse have a built-in curiosity factor, but it’s hard to think of one as hauntingly constructed as this. McCarthy possesses a massive, Biblical vocabulary and he unleashes it in this book with painterly effect. Words like “quoits,” “bindle” and “gambrel” sparkle in the text like bits of mica. With every step the boy and his father encounter the mummied dead, “Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellow paintings of their teeth.”
McCarthy does not give the father and son names, but they are vividly drawn. Flashbacks are not necessary for they live in a present where the past has become a mere wink of light. All is for survival. The man will sacrifice anything for his son, whom he plies with hot cocoa, a stray Coca-Cola and the last of their food. He carries a pistol for the day when he must put his child out of this misery.
Born into suffering, the boy has learned to patrol his father’s martyr-like instincts. He forces him to share in the occasional finds, be they soda or mushrooms. The boy also badgers him when they leave dying survivors behind. “We have no way to help him,” the man tells his son. “You know that don’t you?” In response the boy stages a silent protest. Later, there are dogs and children the boy wants to save, too.
This tension between generosity and survival forms the moral crux of The Road. The boy and his father encounter men who are hungry and desperate; some much worse off, who come crashing after them in search of flesh to eat. After one close call, which forces the father to use one of the precious rounds in his pistol, he tells his son, “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” And he does, which leaves the boy constantly uneasy. “Are we still the good guys?” he asks.
The starkness of their dilemma is elegantly conveyed by McCarthy’s prose, which is sober and purposeful as ever, but never forgetful of the necessary angel of beauty. And as always with McCarthy’s fiction there is momentum, less through the stringing of “ands” he used in “The Border Trilogy” (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, published between 1992 and 1998), but rather through pacing.
McCarthy has composed their story in paragraph-long bursts of prose which re-create the feel of journeying. There are gaps and elisions. We wake to the nightmare of this world after these lulls in the text just as they do. There are numerous literary echoes here, from Beckett to Pinter, but the strongest are of Homer’s Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, both tales of travels which pivot on the hinge of survival.
Ultimately, The Road proves just how far McCarthy has evolved, from the baroque sentences and thematic viscosity of his early novels to the streamlined prose of his previous book, last year’s No Country for Old Men. Here he proves he can strip his fiction down to its most essential elements. The Road is a story of loyalty, fear, fire and family. And yet it will touch even the coldest human heart.