The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Vintage International 2006 paperback
     Why does my son keep choosing books I’m not looking forward to reading? This gets into issues regarding the mind of the reader. Of course I want to read everything on my shelves. I want to read all the time. That doesn’t mean that my moods and feelings about reading are indiscriminate. Sometimes when I see a title I jump towards it and my mind screams “Yes! I’ve been waiting so long to read this!” Other times a title can be presented and I’ll shrink away from it thinking, “Oh no…here it comes.”
     One reason I didn’t want to read The Road is what I’ve heard about the book from other readers. Oh my god! Devastating! Whose opinion most stands out is my ex-husband who said the book emotionally pummeled him all the way through. He may have even mentioned crying. My ex is a very emotionally sensitive man and he read it during a time when our son was much younger. Knowing the story centers around a man and his young son, it would make sense that this plot tugged at the heartstrings of my ex who could easily place himself in the character role of the father. I didn’t know if I wanted to dive in to such an emotional read. Still, I find it interesting to test certain material when really close to it. For example, I found it an entertaining challenge to watch Rosemary’s Baby while pregnant. For mothers of young sons: can you watch the movie Cujo without cringing?
     Another reason I was resisting the read was the author’s style. I have read No Country for Old Men and I have a joke I usually roll out when Cormac McCarthy gets brought into the conversation. I note the dry and straightforward nature of the writing by making up a quote in the same style. “The man took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He took out one cigarette. He raised the cigarette to his lips and lit the cigarette. He blew out a stream of smoke. He returned the pack of cigarettes to his pocket.” Even though I do this as a joke, it is not far off the mark. McCarthy is very succinct, dry and basic in his descriptions. He very rarely elaborates on things that are not physically there. I am more drawn to authors that have the opposite style. An example would be Dostoyevsky who takes labyrinthian trips through mind and space using unique and often poetic language.
Yet…The Road is a perfect confluence between McCarthy’s writing style and the subject matter. The tone could, if one were so inclined, be described as boring. Yet, in this particular story, the tone reflects the setting. This is a post-apocalyptic tale in which gray ash is the dominating feature. How do you pretty that up with language? The tone is as devoid of color as the setting. There is little to reflect on except for the road…the road on which the two main characters travel south in search of warmer climes. There are very few flashbacks. There is no color and very little action (as compared to our shoot-em-up action movie standards). The reader is not inside anyone’s head. As a credit to McCarthy, he somehow makes boredom not so boring. He draws us on although we know the picture is not going to get better. In fact, with the father’s coughing, we gradually come to know it will only get worse. So for this particular story I feel McCarthy’s tone and style fit the plot and setting. All of these elements marrying made more sense to me while reading.
Now the book proper:
Suicide. Any post-apocolypic tale naturally lends itself to thoughts of suicide or the specter of one or more suicides along the way. After everything has died, what is there to live for? We learn the boy’s mother consciously decides to check out; being a mother is not reason enough for her to carry on. The father would much rather be dead. The reader is told this more than once. The father feels that the life of his son is the only thing that keeps him on this dead earth. McCarthy doesn’t use any quote marks; each speaker gets a new line. To save room I’ll simply identify the speaker: Son: What would you do if I died? Father: If you died I would want to die too. Son: So you could be with me? Father: Yes. So I could be with you. Son: Okay (11). But because Papa has a son–because he is in charge of one of the few living things on earth–he decides to carry on. “…the boy was all that stood between him and death” (29). There is not much reason to carry on besides spending another day with his son, teaching him something, comforting him, hugging him, trying to toughen him for what is left of the world. At one point we learn that Papa has actually taught his son how to successfully shoot his own self in the head if he is ever taken captive. The only way this could happen would be if something were to happen to Papa. In that event he has taught his son what to do in order not to be tortured, eaten or killed. At one point the child wonders at the reasons for staying alive if there are no other people on earth. He asks Papa if maybe there are people alive who are not on the earth. Papa explains that people couldn’t live if they were not on earth. Son: Not even if they could get there? Papa: No. The boy looked away. Papa: What? He [Son] shook his head. I don’t know what we’re doing, he said. The man started to answer. But he didn’t. After a while he said: There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see” (245). He couldn’t kill his son, and if he killed himself it would be like killing his son. He just had to let the wheel spin out. By the time that happens, the child knows why and how his father’s batteries have run down. As a kid, he is prepared as he can be, but he still does not want, or need, to be alone.
No life. McCarthy feels no need to elaborate regarding how we have entered the post-apocalyptic world. We do know there are a few blasts and that the husband and wife somehow save themselves by being underwater. Here is the scene never to be revisited: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn’t answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the electricity was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening? I don’t know. Why are you taking a bath? I’m not” (52-3). Due to dense ash cover, the sun is blotted out. It is either because of lack of sun or a combination of the blasts and the blackening of the sun that everything in the known setting dies. Our story picks up a few years in, so we don’t know if everything has been harvested, hunted and eaten, or if everything instantaneously died. Besides a few ragged humans, there are no animals. We hear a dog once and only once. There are no fish to catch and no animals to hunt. All domestic pets have vanished. There are no crops, no live trees, no flowers and no vegetables. Our characters have to rely only on canned goods and brackish water. There is rain, which I suppose one could say is alive. Sometimes the wind blows. Sometimes there is lightning or snow. The ocean rolls but produces no food. ALL is dead.
Cannibalism. Food shortage leads some to cannibalism. There are hints that some hunt humans for meat. There is the ever-present threat of being caught by some sort of cannibal cult that harvests people. This theme is not overwhelming or pervasive. In fact, there is only one real scene where cannibalism comes into stark relief…but it WILL scare the fuck out of the reader. This scene occurs on page 111 so look out!
Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. “Papa”, as he’s known in the book, uses this simple (excuse my cultural inappropriateness) cowboys and Indians theme to give father and son their identity. Every parent enters that teaching phase where you blatantly point out who is behaving well and with whom you do NOT want to identify. Papa always tells Son that they are on the side of the good guys. He really has no choice in which side to choose since they are both so soft-hearted that they can barely stand this life. For example, they do not kill strangers but rather hide from them. They are not, and would not become, cannibals because they know it is wrong. They are constantly near death from starvation because they will not give in to dark forces. Son tries to expand this philosophy outward at every chance: “If you break little promises you’ll break a big one. That’s what you said” (34). He has trouble understanding the logic of NOT helping. If we are the good guys, how come we didn’t take that little boy with us? If we are the good guys why didn’t we help that old man? (They eventually share a meal with an old blind man.) If we are one of the good guys why did we take all the clothes and shoes from the thief whom we caught stealing all our shit? (They eventually go back and leave the clothes for the thief who has now disappeared.) We can see that sometimes the boy’s insistence on the concept of being the good guys influences the behavior of the father, however reluctantly he may acquiesce. Trying to remain good in a bad world takes constant vigilance and there are many shades of gray in between. In this setting one is often pushed up against the decision to either be good or be alive. Add another layer: sometimes in order to protect your goodness you must defeat others so that one more bad person is deleted while one more good person moves forward. Further, aren’t all good guys bad from time to time? Does an isolated, fact-motivated “bad” behavior make a person bad? As one can see, this rabbit hole digs deep.
Communication. The world we live in today is one of mass communication. There are billions of people to talk to using a wide array of formats in order to express innumerable ideas. What happens to communication when everyone and everything is gone? They can’t even talk to their houseplants! Because there are no things, Papa slowly forgets the names of things. The novel progresses in a way that a human relationship might: the newer the relationship the more there is to say. As time wears on and you know each other’s stories and preferences, less talk is needed. Between Papa and Son communication becomes a dying art. Early in the novel the father has to train and explain. There are a lot of reassurances. Directions are often a main focus of their communication. As the boy grows and learns certain protocols, less information is needed. Just as no animal lives and no plant grows, their conversation cannot live and grow because there is nothing new to see. There are no new adventures. There is no color, no art, no music, no entertainment, no books, no jokes. No one knows luck, god, or thanks anymore. Common polite gestures disappear with the world. The reader may think the kid simply needs no words, but at one point he spots another boy near his age. Son is so desperate for social interaction that he chases the boy which places them in a dangerously vulnerable position. It’s as if the son is willing to die to have human interaction outside the relationship with his father. We learn that there used to be story-telling between Papa and Son, but the boy grows to no longer care for made-up stuff. Once, he asks his dad just to talk about himself, from before. Papa never shares stories of The Before (my emphasis) because he knows his son will never experience such pleasures. “What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not” (131). Why tell a kid about a beautiful day catching fish with grandpa on the big lake when that will never happen for Son? Why describe Six Flags or the Grand Canyon when he will never experience such things? I got the sense that Papa felt these stories of The Before would be taunting; like cooking a steak you never intend to share in front of a starving teenager. Son asks: You forget some things, don’t you? Papa: Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget (12). They only talk about things that used to be, like a crow, if it naturally comes into the conversation. The boy only asks for basic information and the father only gives as much as is asked. Like I said, there are no flights of fancy or philosophical debates here.
No comfort. With no sun there is no warmth.With no sun or warmth there are no longer seasons. Although they are headed South the entire story, it never gets warmer and the sun never shines. Bundling and constant search for warmth and food are the number one priorities. There are twisted and pruned bodies but no shoes. No readily available food means constant movement. There is no mental rest because one must always be on the lookout for anything edible or for anyone who may want to eat you! If you find food, someone else will find you. There is no rest and no sound sleep. The best sleep anyone experiences comes only through utter exhaustion. (You don’t wake up refreshed after passing out from exhaustion.) Constant movement during starvation means no time for entertainment or daydreaming. Nothing can be made funny. There are no witty asides; those have died as well. There is no music or dancing or art to transport one from physical and emotional stressors. There are no distractions from the slow death at hand. Sickness has to be endured. Stitches have to be self-stitched. There are no medications, no alcohol, no weed (!) to transport one from the gray ashen world at hand, however briefly. For Papa, even having a pleasant dream is stressful because he feels the images in the dream are trying to lure him toward death. Papa doesn’t want Son to have negative images stuck in his mind, but they are already there and the child seems strangely untroubled. This is troubling! It is also discomfiting that Son used to find things from time to time that he would pick up and attach to. He’d carry something around and play with it for a few days. When the boy no longer does this Papa notices the disappearance…a childhood vanishing. Anything that used to be joyous, like the kid instinctively feels when they arrive at the ocean, is no longer a happy place. There is a stress at the deletion of joy. Making a simple mistake can mean life or death; leaving the valve open on the lantern and wasting the gas could mean getting lost from each other in the night. One can’t rest for want of vigilence. The father’s cough grows more frequent and both of them know he will eventually die. They both simply must face this fact because there are no doctors, no hospitals, no treatments that can ease or cure the father’s symptoms. There is nothing available on earth that can make him live longer. If there is any shred of comfort in this world, it is the ability to sit by a fire and the love between father and son. They are often in contact from the slightest—where the son may be holding the jacket tail of his father—to the closest; where the father bundles the child in his arms under his coats to keep him warm and alive. So, what is that…like, two comforts? Damn.
Poetics. Yes, yes, I know what I said about McCarthy being literal, dry and fact-based in his descriptions, but damn, sometimes he throws us a gem that takes the breath away. Due to his apparent genius, his short, infrequent poetic bursts somehow don’t seem out of place. Here are the gems sourced just for you: “In that long ago somewhere very near this place he’d watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn air” (20). A short one on page 27: “In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be.” A longer flight: “In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a fever land. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all” (29). Sometimes McCarthy flings excellent analogy: “By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp” (32). After washing his son’s hair the father watches him falling asleep by the fire. “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 breath upon them” (74). After carving a crude flute for the boy: “…after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves” (77-8). Fucking brilliant, eh? After searching a burned and abandoned home: “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it” (130). Along the way Papa notices rock formations that were at one time messages between groups. McCarthy gets biblical: “By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by 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 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 holes in the drifted ash 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” (181). The “squid ink” line here undoes me! Unbelievable. They hear something unfathomable in the distance. “He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt” (261). I like the way McCarthy makes up words. “Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts” (273).
Wrap up. In the end, the story seems to ask: Did we teach our children enough to survive out there on their own? Did we fortify them with enough morals to remain good guys no matter what? It also warns: there is only ONE earth. I gleaned this message from this poetic ending: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery” (287). We get only ONE chance to live in this world that will sustain both the earth, its people, and all life. DON’T FUCK IT UP!

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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