Editor’s note: This review originally ran on PopMatters on 18 September 2006. We’re re-running it today in honor of its selection as the new pick in Oprah’s Book Club.
“The mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth. They were discarded to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long stolen.”
— The Road
The apocalypse is not to be tinkered with lightly, or given to writers of lesser caliber — unfortunately this is not a widely held belief. As an event, it has long the province of the lower order of genre writers, who are more often interested in the end of the world as a nifty device for getting rid of law and order, thusly allowing their heroes to battle across harsh and forbidding landscapes with jerry-rigged, Mad Max-style weaponry.
This is not to say that the apocalypse should be left for writers of literature, of “real” fiction. The simple truth of the matter is that they are too often bereft of the right kind of imagination to make such a landscape come alive. Although there exist many excellent and thoughtful novels of the post-apocalypse from science fiction writers — Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz are two astounding examples that come right to mind — their authors can tend to get overly hung up on the particulars of their created world (this over-emphasis on the exterior as opposed to interior is of course a job hazard for sci-fi-ers). All too rarely comes along a writer who can marry the interior and exterior in a manner befitting the subject.
This is all a long way of getting around to the fact that the recently quite-productive Cormac McCarthy has written a new novel, The Road, which is set in a post-apocalyptic environment, and it’s as though he was made for it. The book is not only an instant classic of its type, it’s pretty close to being the novel of the year.
Given his penchant for characters wandering or fighting their way through harsh environments, it’s in some sense no surprise that McCarthy would be drawn to the apocalypse. Novels like Outer Dark and Blood Meridian are heavily populated with iconic stragglers of this sort, creeping in a crepuscular fashion towards uncertain fates, with deathly fate everywhere. In The Road, McCarthy takes a style that’s always had a tilt towards the gothic and gives it free reign as he follows a father and son diligently struggling across a blasted and dead countryside that seems to have once been America, barely surviving from one day to the next while carrying some vague idea of reaching the sea. What should happen once they reach the sea is never quite said.
We know that the civilization-ending event happened a few years prior, since the young son can’t remember anything but their current nightmare existence as he was still in his mother’s belly when it happened. What is worse is that the father, like most of the shattered husks of humanity still trudging through the ashy ruins, has the curse of memory. The apocalypse itself is taken care of quite succinctly: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of concussions.” Why or how it happened is never discussed, the father only flashes back occasionally on memories of his wife, before returning to the interminable Sisyphusean struggle of his everyday reality, an unrelenting scrabbling for food in a world long picked-over for its last scraps.
What seems to have been a nuclear winter has settled over the world, leaving little in its wake. There are references to the immediate aftermath, when “the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded … creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland … The frailty of everything revealed at last.” By the time The Road is set, however, even those years are a distant memory, the only people the father and son come across are best avoided, desperate creatures with little left to eat but each other.
McCarthy has long had a mean, or at least a cold-blooded, streak to him. The oft-remarked-on violence of Blood Meridian, some of it excessive to a fault, left marks on any who read those pages. And last year’s No Country for Old Men, the book that ended his seven-year dry spell (the suddenly prolific McCarthy also has a new play out), was really just a modern-day western which took perhaps too much delight in the sadistic invincibility of the villain Chigurh (a doppelganger at times for Meridian‘s similarly implacable Judge). Strangely, given the at-times unbearable harshness of the world he creates in The Road, McCarthy shows more of a heart in this book than he has for some time.
In an unexpected twist, instead of having the son act as a symbol of a new animalistic humanity, having never known any semblance of civilization, McCarthy makes him the conscience of the two. Finding people chained up in a cellar and screaming for help, the son instantly wants to set them free, while the father forces him to run, knowing that their captors will soon return. If McCarthy had simply set the father at loose in this wilderness, without the son to keep on him like some half-forgotten conscience of a dead world he never knew, the book would have been not only unrelenting (which it is) but also unrewarding.
There are times when The Road is practically too much to bear, with its demonic vistas and cities with “cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell.” The combination of a hope-deprived world crumbling into nothingness and McCarthy’s astringent, horrifying prose imagining all too believably the depths to which a shattered humanity can sink, makes for an emotionally devastating experience, and one not quickly shed.
But as with all great literature of the apocalypse, The Road is not just a litany of despair, it is a lament for all that was lost, and thusly, a celebration of the here and now. His novel may have the trappings of a horror film, but with his stubborn wanderers diligently batting their unanswerable questions back and forth in a godless waste, McCarthy enters the land of Beckett.