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Book Review: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

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The nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the morning had a terrible silence to it.  Like a dawn before battle. (137)

It’s probably fair to call The Road a perfect novel.  It goes to the very edge of the precipice: death, destruction, annihilation.  The two characters who populate the story are at the very end of the road.  The title suggests some kind of Kerouacian journey to fun-loving beatnik enlightenment, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The Road is neither fun-loving, nor beatnik.  There is possibly enlightenment, but the tiny candle of hope the book holds out is dim indeed.  McCarthy goes as far as it is possible to go in literature – stripping the characters’ world bare until there’s nothing left but metaphor. The result is as beautiful as it is painful. 

It takes about ten pages to reveal, in patches of bleak discovery for the reader, that the landscape that the two characters of this novel inhabit is a post-apocalyptic one.  Everything is burnt, ash-covered, with corpses everywhere.  The two main characters of this novel, a father and his son, are on the run, hiding from gangs of vicious ‘bloodcult’ cannibals looking to capture, enslave and eat anyone left alive.  They are also in search of something, but it’s never quite clear what: someplace to stay; some group which is overtly good and safe.  They follow a broken “tattered oilcompany roadmap” towards the southern ocean.

But the landscape is unforgiving.  Starvation is always at hand.  Their lives are only safe in the temporary serendipity of what they might happen upon with their wrecked shopping trolley, protected by no more than a single bullet.  There are overtones of Mad Max — the black humour of wild, comically dressed road gangs — but the relationship between the nameless father and son is so tender, so sad, and so full of the longing of the world that no longer exists, that every word of the book is wrought.  And at no point does the reader laugh.  Even looking away from the continual horror is difficult.

In this environment, McCarthy allows himself no spare words, but what he does use is a testimony to his craftsmanship.  The novel is as sparse and clean as anything Hemingway or Carver has produced, and yet, in the pristine bone cracking cold of its prose is so much linguistic lushness. Every word is heavy with poetic richness.  The book is full of metaphor, and the metaphors are used wonderfully, but so perfectly integrated is the language with plot and characterisation, that it’s possible to read this and not notice the metaphors.  Instead the reader gets straight to the heart of what the metaphor is conveying:

He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings.  An old Chronicle.  To see out the upright.  No fall but preceded by a declination.  He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return.  Eyes closed, arms oaring.  Upright to what?  Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix.  To which he and the stars were common satellite.  Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must. (14)

Throughout the novel, the work takes its momentum from the pain of encroaching nothingness and hope simultaneously pressing against each other.  The man loves the boy, but knows his own death is coming as he spits blood onto the ashy snow.  The father and son spend the entire book seeking the good, and safe, struggling for life, with death and extinction everywhere.  And yet it’s almost unbearably beautiful, almost intensely rich as the reader absorbs the desperate love between the boy and his father, and the boy's desperation to be one of the “good guys.”  This is a book that hits the reader between the eyebrows with the ache of an ice cream headache. 

Although the story centres myopically on the father and his son, there are other characters in the periphery.  There is the mother, who isn’t in this story — having already coldly committed suicide before the story opens – but who populates the story through the father’s memory.  She is part of the life and world he can only dream about, but can’t construct, in words for his son, or in reality.  The boy was born in the early days of the tragedy, and therefore has no memory of his mother, and yet he is the embodiment of her – of a place his father once inhabited. 

There are also characters they meet on the road; brief glimpses of an almost extinct species (and most others are already extinct), reduced to survival instinct.  There is the old nameless man they meet and help on the road.  There is the baby they don’t save who later might be the same one they find on a spit.  There is the little boy’s face the boy sees in a window, who later might be the same one he joins up with:  “Goodness will find the little boy.  It always has.  It will again.” (300).  There are the chained people in a house they run from.  There is the man they kill, and the one they may as well have killed.

The dialogue between the man and his son is sharp in its contrast to the long sentences which seem to originate in the man’s head.  These two sentences for example, comma-less and metaphor rich draw the reader away from the action into the biblical intensity of the landscape:

The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holds in the drifted ashes that closed behind them silently as eyes.  Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond. (193)

Then the story pulls the reader out of reverie into the stark survival dialogue of the pair as they struggle for food, for warmth, and to move towards a place – an ocean no longer blue — where the man’s consumption won’t kill him:

There are other good guys. You said so.
Yes.
So where are they?
They’re hiding.
Who are they hiding from?
From each other.
Are there lots of them?
We dont know.
But some.
Some. Yes.
Is that true?
Yes. That’s true.
But it might not be true.
I think it’s true.
Okay.
You dont believe me.
I believe you.
Okay.(196-7)

The tenderness between the father and son is a masterly example of showing rather than telling.  The father’s desperation not to die or allow his son to be taken by the “bloodcults” is something that McCarthy makes clear without spelling it out.  He never tells us that the man is dying, but we watch his decline as his cough worsens, along with the boys progression as he stops playing with the broken toys and items he finds, and becomes ever more skeletal: “Knobby spine bones.  The razorous shoulder blades sawing under the pale skin.” (233)

But never for a moment, however bleak, and this is possibly the bleakest book ever written, does the book descend into nihilism or become maudlin.  The father and son do indeed “carry the flame”, and it’s this Pater styled “hard gem-like flame” that underpins the novel, leaving us with the “uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard” (17).  Though McCarthy resists the urge to give the reader too much hope—things can never be made right again–the memories of the boy, of trout that smell of moss in your hand; the “vermiculate patterns” of a world that once was, of the enduring conversations between a boy and his father, remain beautiful.  And for his readers, these are things we still have now. 

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.