Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2005)
241 p. First reading.
Reading The Road is like taking a long walk in which each step is a little more painful, each turn in the road adds another knot to the stomach, and each crest of a hill makes it harder to breathe. By the end, I was begging for relief, for some respite from the relentless march.
We never learn why the world died. The man remembers a red glow on the horizon. That was some years ago — maybe five or eight. In the meantime everything has gone to hell. The government has collapsed, the economy is gone. Nothing grows, and there are apparently no animals still living — no birds, rodents, or insects. The sky is slate grey, raining ash, and one cannot see the sun, much less the stars. Gangs roam the mostly deserted countryside, and slavery, infanticide, and cannibalism have returned.
Through this desolation the man and his son tread their wary way, heading south. We don’t know where they have come from; they don’t know where they are going. They are looking for help, for some remnant of civilization, and some milk of human kindness. They pick their way through town and village, raiding deserted homes for tinned food and supplies, hoping to scavenge before someone else arrives with the same purpose. The landscape is wasted and dead, and they have no real grounds for hope. Dreams of the vanished world overshadow the man’s mind as he sleeps, though the details are falling into forgetfulness. The only light for their path is the love of the man and his son for one another. The boy remembers goodness better than his father. He is sustained by the idea that they are “carrying the fire”, and must not let the fire die.
Under such circumstances the material conditions of life are of overwhelming concern. Each battery, each drop of fuel, each tin of beans is of great importance. McCarthy’s prose shows this. His descriptions of physical actions and material objects are precise and focused to an uncommon degree.
The novel’s vision is bleak, but not desparing or misanthropic. You will find no reassurances here about the basic goodness of man, but neither is it nihilistic. The world, even when blasted and laid waste, presents a real moral challenge, and though many fail the test, the good continues to beckon, brooding over the bent world.
This is the first of McCarthy’s novels that I have read. His prose style is new to me. His disregard for punctuational conventions could have been an irritating gimmick, but in this case the primitivism suits the subdued, desolate tone of the book. When the world has fallen apart, one doesn’t worry overmuch about quotation marks. What is most impressive is that using very simple means — short, declarative sentences and sparse dialogue — he is able to create a strong sense of atmosphere, drama, and character. It is an excellent book.