Published on January 29th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck0
The Road — Cormac McCarthy
The sun’s blotted out, the trees are bare and burnt, and everything’s swathed in ashes. This is the setting of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – post-nuclear-war America, or at least what used to be America. What’s left is a charnel house. Barren earth, ash-choked rivers, corpse-littered landscape.
The story starts several years after the apocalypse. Already everything’s slumped into horrific, gut-churning violence. Those unlucky enough to survive creep, starving, through a hellish landscape, hiding from the cannibals that stalk the countryside, and battling just to see the next day, and the next. Amid this panoply of horrors, the smallest act of endurance is the rawest act of bravery.
McCarthy’s protagonists are a father and his young son. (They’re never identified by name.) Cold and starving, they travel the road south, heading for the coast. They sleep huddled together beneath a tarpaulin or in derelict houses. They scavenge food wherever they can. The father coughs blood and clutches a pistol. Two bullets left.
As they shuffle through this world-sized mass grave, the father cautions his son: ‘Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever’. But the boy can’t avoid witnessing the carnage. He lives in a state of constant fear. Even so, he shows uncomplicated pity and compassion for other survivors. He insists on sharing food with an old man. When an emaciated dog starts following them, the man calls to it, and the boy starts crying and begs for the dog’s life. Several times he seeks his father’s assurance that they’re ‘still the good guys’.
McCarthy describes the ordeals of the boy and the man in stripped-back prose. By his standards, the vocabulary is plain. The syntax is also straightforward, favouring simple sentences and fragments. When he does connect clauses, McCarthy sticks to coordinating conjunctions ‘and’ and ‘but’. This produces a herky-jerky rhythm. But after a few pages you fall into step with it. Its simplicity captures the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other existence of the boy and his father: they can’t afford to think beyond the next step, the next tiny act of survival.
They’re sustained only by their love for each other. It’s an odd relationship. In some moments they’re father and son; in others there’s an odd equality between child and man. Their dialogue is spare and authentic. Both son and father are achingly real. Sometimes the boy seems wiser than his years – but in the circumstances perhaps that’s not so far-fetched.
Reading The Road reminded me of reading The Sound and the Fury or watching Schindler’s List. Beautiful, profound, and mesmerising. But also joyless, dispiriting, and anvil sad. It’s undoubtedly the work of a genius – perhaps the greatest living American writer – yet with each turned page the knot of dread in my chest tightened.
The Road is a tale of love and endurance in the face of despair and endless night. Everything’s fucked, and everything’s ugly. The bravest thing you can do is stay alive.