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Cormac McCarthy's The Road



Cormac McCarthy’s novels have always visited bleak places. From whitetrash Tennessee to the sere border landscape of southern Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and across the border into Chihuahua, Sonora and Coahuila, his taciturn, largely unlikeable, often sociopathic protagonists chased fate and lived ragged lives like puppets manipulated by an unseen hand.

In his new book, The Road , he takes on nothing less than the end of mankind and somehow manages to imbue it with a humanity almost unknown is his previous work.

Anyone who grew up during the Cold War and claims to have never wondered about what a post-apocalyptic world might be like is either an imbecile or a liar. But thoughts of that world, and more particularly surviving in it, rarely developed very far; it was unimaginable.

McCarthy vividly imagines it as a bleak, barren, utterly dead place. A nuclear winter of ashen sky, gunmetal grey landscape and dim light, the world — or what’s left of it — is cold and inhospitable. Not much is left that hasn’t been looted and nothing is growing; there is no sign of rebirth or renewal. The land and oceans are dead and so, nearly, are the few inhabitants who wander, searching for food, avoiding the murderous slave gangs and trying, for no discernable purpose other than a stubborn will to survive, to keep from becoming food themselves.

The Road traces the wanderings of a father and son headed for what they hope will be a warmer place to survive yet another winter. Reflecting the lifelessness all around them, McCarthy never names his protagonists; they are simply the man and the boy. Born shortly after the apocalypse to a mother who chose suicide in the face of hopelessness, the boy has never known another world and the man can never forget what things were like before….

Before what? McCarthy dodges the inertia of detail of what, how, when, and who unleashed the four horsemen. As close as he comes to actually describing what happened to turn the world to ash comes late in the book when he briefly describes the buildings of a coastal city, “…the cluster of tall buildings vaguely askew. He thought the iron armatures had softened in the heat and then reset again to leave the buildings standing out of true. The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake.”

It’s a clever dodge, putting the reader into the life and soul of the characters’ survival. In that time and place, what does it matter how the world came to an end? Place, nation, ideology, religion retain no meaning in the ashen remains.

Ten years after the event, the man and boy wander on, starving, dying, a few possessions pushed along in a scavenged shopping cart. Questionable scrounged food, tainted water, a pistol with too few bullets to end the suffering for both of them and an arc of remaining humanity are all that protect them from starvation, marauding gangs, and their own despair.

For all of it’s bleakness, The Road is quite possibly the most tender and ultimately optimistic of McCarthy’s sweeping works of fiction. It plumbs the uniquely human mechanisms of hope in the face of hopelessness, trust, familial love, empathy and the great depth of spirit that in more normal settings elevate the best of humanity above the animal instincts that dominate the nightly news and, undoubtedly, led to its fictional destruction.

Never a mainstream writer — but certainly one with a cultish following — McCarthy may have penned his most powerful work in this slim novel.

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