- The Road
Cormac McCarthy's The Road is high literature mixed with horror movie, a love story between a father and son set in a world "largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes." The book is set approximately a decade after civilization has been destroyed by what was surely a nuclear war, though the novel only describes a "long sheer of light and then a series of low concussions." What is left is a world that is ash-covered, charred, cold and virtually lifeless, a world where "the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp" and entire cities have been reduced to "a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste." McCarthy has a genius for physical description, and he's able to find details that bring this landscape into focus. He shows us "the long concrete sweep of interstate exchanges like the ruins of a vast funhouse against the distant murk" and later "the melted window glass" that hangs down the outside of buildings "like icing on a cake."
"Filthy, ragged, hopeless," an unnamed man and his son move through this world, traveling vaguely south, toward the Gulf Coast, though mostly they move from day to day, from hunger to hunger. The search for food is all-consuming, and there is little to be found. The cities are "looted, ransacked, ravaged. Rifled of every crumb." But the man is determined to keep his son alive, and he proves amazingly resourceful (and lucky), scouring houses and barns and train-cars and even a sailboat, tipped on its side and abandoned in the lifeless, soot-colored ocean. McCarthy shows the man siphoning gas from abandoned pumps, stripping hay bales for a few scant seeds, panning water from a cistern. One of the great pleasures of the novel is in witnessing the man's physical ingenuity and his devotion to the boy; one of its horrors is that these make so little difference.
The father is partly driven by a religious zealotry that McCarthy seems only half-invested in. The boy and the father talk of "carrying the fire" inside them, and there's a scene with a blind traveler named Ely (a reference to the prophet Elijah) in which the father claims to believe his son is "the last God." The scene is the least successful in the novel.
The real moral center comes in the scenes of the man tending to the boy (bathing him, cutting his hair, wringing out his rain-soaked clothes) and in the boy's simple, instinctual desire to help the people they encounter on the road. The boy's goodness is at odds, in several scenes, with the father's practicality. After they discover, in the basement of a house, human slaves chained to the [End Page 151] wall and being used for food, the boy asks why they couldn't help the people, but he already knows the answer: "We couldn't help them because they would eat us too."
All moral complexity has been battered out of this world. There are simply "good guys" and "bad guys," those who will eat you and those (fewer) who will not. The metaphysical insights, for the most part, come in short bursts, such as the father wondering if "in the world's destruction it would be possible at least to see how it was made." But the demands of the physical world constantly pull the father away from the metaphysical toward the practical.
What holds this threadbare plot together is McCarthy's remarkable prose. Written in short, snapshot paragraphs, the book achieves a style that is somehow both emotionally restrained and linguistically rich: "The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared. Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the heels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts."