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October 23, 2006

The Road — by Cormac McCarthy


Perhaps the most powerful book I've read this year.

I decided not to write about it here because it was so overwhelming, I simply didn't feel I had any business remarking on it at all.

William Kennedy, in his front-page review for the New York Times Book Review of Sunday, October 8, 2006, was less reticent.

Rather than say anything more, I'll defer to him and his review, which follows in its entirety.

    Left Behind

    Cormac McCarthy’s subject in his new novel is as big as it gets: the end of the civilized world, the dying of life on the planet and the spectacle of it all. He has written a visually stunning picture of how it looks at the end to two pilgrims on the road to nowhere. Color in the world — except for fire and blood — exists mainly in memory or dream. Fire and firestorms have consumed forests and cities, and from the fall of ashes and soot everything is gray, the river water black. Hydrangeas and wild orchids stand in the forest, sculptured by fire into “ashen effigies” of themselves, waiting for the wind to blow them over into dust. Intense heat has melted and tipped a city’s buildings, and window glass hangs frozen down their walls. On the Interstate “long lines of charred and rusting cars” are “sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber. ... The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.”

    McCarthy has said that death is the major issue in the world and that writers who don’t address it are not serious. Death reaches very near totality in this novel. Billions of people have died, all animal and plant life, the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea are dead: “At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death.” Forest fires are still being ignited (by lightning? other fires?) after what seems to be a decade since that early morning — 1:17 a.m., no day, month or year specified — when the sky opened with “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” The survivors (not many) of the barbaric wars that followed the event wear masks against the perpetual cloud of soot in the air. Bloodcults are consuming one another. Cannibalism became a major enterprise after the food gave out. Deranged chanting became the music of the new age.

    A man in his late 40’s and his son, about 10, both unnamed, are walking a desolated road. Perhaps it is the fall, but the soot has blocked out the sun, probably everywhere on the globe, and it is snowing, very cold, and getting colder. The man and boy cannot survive another winter and are heading to the Gulf Coast for warmth, on the road to a mountain pass — unnamed, but probably Lookout Mountain on the Tennessee-Georgia border. It is through the voice of the father that McCarthy delivers his vision of end times. The son, born after the sky opened, has no memory of the world that was. His father gave him lessons about it but then stopped: “He could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own.” The boy’s mother committed suicide rather than face starvation, rape and the cannibalizing of herself and the family, and she mocks her husband for going forward. But he is a man with a mission. When he shoots a thug who tries to murder the boy (their first spoken contact with another human in a year) 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 when he washes the thug’s brains out of his son’s hair he ruminates: “All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.” He strokes the boy’s head and thinks: “Golden chalice, good to house a god.”

    McCarthy does not say how or when God entered this man’s being and his son’s, nor does he say how or why they were chosen to survive together for 10 years, to be among the last living creatures on the road. The man believes the world is finished and that he and the boy are “two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” But the man is a zealot, pushing himself and the boy to the edge of death to achieve their unspecified destination, persisting beyond will in a drive that is instinctual, or primordial, and bewildering to himself. But the tale is as biblical as it is ultimate, and the man implies that the end has happened through godly fanaticism. The world is in a nuclear winter, though that phrase is never used. The lone allusion to our long-prophesied holy war with its attendant nukes is when the man thinks: “On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world.”

    They keep walking, the man coughing blood, dying, envying the dead. They are starving, stalked by the unseen, by armed thugs who travel by truck, and in terror they see an army of “marchers” who appear on the road four abreast and epitomize what the apocalypse has wrought: “All wearing red scarves at their necks. ... Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. ... Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. ... The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings. ... Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.”

    And the boy asks, “Were they the bad guys?”

    “Yes, they were the bad guys.”

    “There’s a lot of them, those bad guys.”

    “Yes there are. But they’re gone.”

    The overarching theme in McCarthy’s work has been the face-off of good and evil with evil invariably triumphant through the bloodiest possible slaughter. Had this novel continued his pattern, that band of marching thugs would have been the focus — as it was with the apocalyptic horsemen of death in his second novel, “Outer Dark,” or the blood-mad scalp-hunters in his masterpiece, “Blood Meridian,” or the psychopathic killer in his recent novel, “No Country for Old Men.” But evil victorious is not this book’s theme. McCarthy changes the odds to favor the man and boy, who for a decade have survived death by fire and ice, and also cannibalism, which has become the most grievous manifestation of evil’s waning days. In the cellar of an antebellum home they discover naked slaves of a new order, people who were ambushed on the road and then kept alive as food. One man’s legs and thighs have been cut away, his hips cauterized by fire; and he lives on. When six of the cannibals return to the house the man and boy barely escape the same fate. Hiding, afraid to breathe, the father tells the boy it’s going to be O.K. He says that often.

    The boy asks: “We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?”

    “No. Of course not. ...”

    “No matter what.”

    “No. No matter what.”

    “Because we’re the good guys.”


    “And we’re carrying the fire.”

    “And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.”

    “The Road” is a dynamic tale, offered in the often exalted prose that is McCarthy’s signature, but this time in restrained doses — short, vivid sentences, episodes only a few paragraphs or a few lines long, which is yet another departure for him, coming after “No Country for Old Men,” published last year. That was also tight and fast, an extremely violent thriller with the energy of his sentences and a philosophical sheriff lifting it out of the genre; but in the McCarthy canon that book seems like a Graham Greene “entertainment” alongside ambitious work like “The Road.” He is said to have other novels in unfinished drafts, so perhaps he will revert to grandiloquence in those to come. But on the basis of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” it does seem that he has put aside the linguistic excesses and the philosophizing for which he has been both venerated and mocked — those Faulknerian convolutions, the Melvillean sermonizing — and opted for terse dialogue and spartan narrative, a style he inherited from another of his ancestors, Hemingway, and long ago made his own.

    The accessibility of this book, the love between father and son expressed in their quicksilver conversations, and the pathos of their story will make the novel popular, perhaps beyond “All the Pretty Horses,” which had a love story and characters you might befriend and not run from, and which delivered McCarthy out of cult status and onto the best-seller list. “The Road” is the most readable of his works, and consistently brilliant in its imagining of the posthumous condition of nature and civilization — “the frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.” Money and gold mean nothing, nor do government, education, books, politics, history, friends, home. The pilgrimage is plotless but it races with tension, a sequence of enemy encounters or sightings, the perpetual danger from the killing weather, huddling under blanket and tarp, endlessly gathering firewood, confronting mysteries the dead world presents to a man seeking (and finding) water and food in the deserted houses, barns and boats that survived the firestorms. The father is ingenious in understanding how the natural and fabricated worlds function; and also lucky, as he modestly tells the boy.

    But that luck is providential, for “The Road,” in addition to being a nonpareil vision of an apocalyptic landscape, is also a messianic parable, with man and boy walking prophetically by rivers, in caves, on mountaintops and across the wilderness in the spiritual spoor of biblical prophets — Isaiah, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, to name a few. Elijah, herald of the Messiah, who will return on the Day of Judgment, turns up as a destitute straggler who looks like “a pile of rags fallen off a cart,” and the boy insists on feeding him. He says his name is “Ely.” In one of the longest conversations in the novel the father talks to Ely about being the last man on earth and says that nobody would know it.

    “It wouldnt make any difference,” Ely says. “When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.”

    “I guess God would know it. Is that it?” the man asks.

    “There is no God,” Ely says.


    “There is no God and we are his prophets.”

    When the man suggests the boy is a god, Ely says: “Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing. ... Things will be better when everybody’s gone.” As a kicker to his doomsaying he adds that even death will die. “He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go?”

    Who knew Elijah did stand-up?

    The man and boy keep heading south and do reach the ocean, which the boy heard was blue, but it is as gray with ash as the rest of the world — a dead sea. And the Gulf Coast is as cold as Tennessee. When they capture a man who stole their goods the father leaves him naked on the road to freeze. The boy protests but the father chides him: “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.” And then the 10-year-old messiah, who is compassion incarnate, and carrying the fire, gives up his secret. He says to his father: “Yes I am. I am the one.”

    The good guys remain elusive as the father sickens, and he talks of the boy inevitably being alone on the road. The boy asks about another boy he saw walking alone. Was he lost?

    “No,” the father says. “I dont think he was lost. ...”

    “But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?”

    “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.”

    Goodness is an anomalous subject for McCarthy, especially in the language of a children’s book. He has given his own kinetic language to the narrating minds of morons, cretins, madmen, psychotic murderers; and in “Blood Meridian” to a satanically articulate god of war who rides with scalp-hunters and is the supreme evil opposite of the good boy messiah. Those narrators all became oracular presences on behalf of evil, but this father and son remain only filial familiars, brave and loving and good but tongue-tied on what else they are or are becoming. The boy refuses to speak his thoughts or dark dreams to his father; the father is as inarticulate on his Promethean son as he is on his own obsession with their forced march. But the father was right about goodness: it arrives on cue as a deus ex machina that has been following the pair and swiftly enfolds the boy savior into a holy family, maybe a holy commune, where they talk of the breath of God passing “from man to man through all of time.” Then McCarthy ends with an eloquent lament: a vision of mountain trout that “smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional” in a time gone when the world was becoming; and what had been was “a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” And all things “were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

    Brief and mystical, this is an extremely austere conclusion to the apocalyptic pilgrimage. Of the boy’s becoming, or his mission — redeeming a dead world, outliving death? — nothing is said. The rhythmic poetry of McCarthy’s formidable talent has made us see the blasted world as clearly as Conrad wanted us to see. But the scarcity of thought in the novel’s mystical infrastructure leaves the boy a designated but unsubstantiated messiah. It makes us wish that that old humming mystery had a lyric.

    William Kennedy is the author of the Albany cycle of novels, the most recent of which is “Roscoe.” He is at work on a new novel.



Now read the book — if you dare.

October 23, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I agree with your Messianic outline. Not everybody agrees, But you are correct. When the child says, "I am the One", he means it.

Posted by: angel | Aug 9, 2008 8:15:49 AM

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