Ease on Down “The Road”

“The Road.” Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 241 pages.

In the century after this nation was born, families headed west along paths with names like the Oregon Trail, carrying their meager belongings in wagons or handcarts. In the century that followed, those dirt trails gave way to tarmac and the roads became Highways 70 and 80, transporting families and trucking goods from sea to shining sea.

Although it is never identified by name, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is most assuredly one of these two highways, broken up and sometimes still steaming from apocalyptic fires in a not too distant future. An unnamed father and son now trudge along this same road, pushing their meager belongings in a shopping cart and carrying their most important belongings in knapsacks in case they have to run from other survivors who roam the same road, looking for food. While their ancestors had moved westward with hope and handcarts, these survivors move eastward with futility and a rusty shopping cart.

They carry a road map with them and inspect it frequently, opening and refolding it so many times that it has fallen into pieces. It’s a map to nowhere, really, the towns abandoned or obliterated. But the father holds onto it with the reverence of a scriptural guide, describing for his son the world that used to be.

This cautionary tale of survival in a gray, post-apocalyptic world is unlike any futuristic novel you’ve read. Yes, you’ll find the usual elements one expects in a dystopian novel—the threatening bands of scavengers, the barren wasteland, the futile vestiges of technology, the desperate attempt to reestablish order out of chaos, the ultimate conflict between good and evil.

But unlike, say, David Brin’s dense “The Postman,” you won’t find long detailed descriptions or philosophy or explanations of what has happened in this book. “The Road” stands out for its spare writing style, its haunting imagery, and its focus on the gentle, intense relationship between an unnamed father and his son as they journey on to escape the gray snow of winter and inevitable death.

“A long shear of light and then a series of concussions” is all that McCarthy tells us about what has caused the calamity a few years earlier, but a thick cloud of ash still covers the sky, blocking the sun and moon, suggesting that the disaster has been world wide. Their only food is what they can scavenge from abandoned homes or stores, while always on the alert for other scavengers who would surely kill and eat them if they were caught.

Yes, eat them, though it isn’t said in so many words. The language in this book is not just spare, but sparse, the sentences fragmented, the contractions written without apostrophes, signaling to the reader on the very first page that this is a society in which normal structures have broken down. In a world without renewable food, no energy can be wasted, not even for place-holding subjects, verbs and quotation marks. Details are seen, but not explained.  In fact, most of what does happen occurs offstage, just out of sight, they way the best horror films were made.  At one point the father turns his son’s head away from a grisly scene, with this exchange:

The things you put into your head are there forever.

It’s okay Papa.

It’s okay?

Theyre already there.

I don’t want you to look.

They’ll still be there.

This book is like that. It stays in your head a long time, the unwritten images recurring with such clarity that you swear you have seen it on a movie screen, even though McCarthy has given you only the barest of details. The father and son hide in the woods as a group of marauders passes by, leading “a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars.” You know their fate, even though you never see them again. On a mattress “darkly stained” they find “a man [who] lay with his legs gone to the hips and the stumps of them blackened and burnt,” and you know what has happened, and worse, what is going to happen, without being told. The pictures visit your dreams and wake you before dawn. It stays in your head. I hope not forever.

And yet there is such beauty in McCarthy’s poetic prose! “Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth,” he writes. “By day the banished sun circles the world like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

He creates an almost allegorical relationship between father and son as they journey inexorably toward the ocean: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” Their all-encompassing love is revealed through simple conversations as the father tries to shield his son from their inevitable outcome, conversations that often resolve into the gentle reassurance, “Its okay. Okay? Okay,” even when it’s not okay.

In the midst of this grayness, the boy offers a shining light of hope. He has never seen goodness, having been born a few weeks after the holocaust, and yet when they see people in the distance or meet a stranger dying on the road, his reaction is always the same: “Can we help him? Papa? Cant we help him Papa?” He hasn’t learned this by example. No one has ever given anything to them, nor has his father taught him to share with others. His goodness is innate, imprinted in his DNA somehow. What is its source?

That seems to be the point of this novel. Much has been made by critics and fans of the cryptic final paragraph of the book, which I can reveal without giving away the story. McCarthy writes: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current wher the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow….On their backs were the 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.”

Some say this paragraph lends the story a message of hope for the future, that fish are returning to the streams, while others focus on the bleakness of the words “not be made right again.”

I think the answer is found earlier in the book. Juxtaposed against the “limp and rotting” map detailing the boundaries of a dying manmade world, McCartney hints of a different kind of map, one found in nature, “the vermiculate patterns….of the world in its becoming,” that lie inside the earliest form of a fish, when life sprang out of the sea containing the DNA that would eventually produce all animal life. But this is not a Darwinian paradise. On the other side of that paragraph the boy learns that “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” More than DNA swirls inside man. And though “a thing … could not be put back,” it can be started again, a spiritual thing that is “older than man [and humming] of mystery.”

You may find something entirely different when you journey down “The Road.” That’s the magic of McCarthy’s poetic style with its multiple layers of potential meaning. The book is being made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son. But I recommend you read the book first–it is a journey well worth taking.

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