This is the way the world ends—not with a bang, but two guys on the open road. True, it is not quite open, since the tarmac in spots has buckled and the occasional capsized tractor-trailer impedes easy passage. Moreover, one of the guys is a boy. In his latest book, Cormac McCarthy conjures up a quintessentially American scenario, though his postapocalyptic pilgrims are not Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, or Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. A man and his young son make their way south, in quest of warmer weather. Both man and boy remain nameless, as if all stories of fathers and sons come down to this desperate, elemental pairing, some time and some place. Their progress is slow, a few miles a day, because they travel on foot and their feet are cushioned with makeshift shoes. They journey through an ashen landscape of pervasive desolation: “The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.”
The boy, who appears to be about eight, has never known another world. Some months before his birth, almost all life on earth was destroyed. The trees, now inert poles that unpredictably crash to the grassless ground, hold no birds, nor does the sea—”one vast salt sepulcher”—contain any fish. Not even insects have endured. Rather than merely envying the dead, the boy’s mother joined them, fashioning her bare bodkin out of a slice of obsidian. For her husband and son, existence has been reduced to two objectives: staying warm and finding food. Grocery stores and houses have long since been pillaged by other wretched survivors, but when the man and the boy stumble upon shelter and a cache of canned goods, they dare not linger, lest they be found and eaten by other famished human beings. So, wary, weary, and bedraggled, the man and the boy, emblems of homelessness transformed into a universal condition, push a broken shopping cart loaded with all their possessions southward, down the vacant road.
In addition to a pistol with one remaining bullet, the man carries a tattered road map that the reader never gets to see. However, the topography of the journey suggests that the man and the boy start where McCarthy began his work, in Tennessee, and move southward toward the Gulf of Mexico. After wandering through the American Southwest, in his Border Trilogy (1992-99) and No Country for Old Men (2005), the author of Suttree (1979) and Child of God (1974) has returned to his roots to write another Southern novel, albeit one in which the entire world has now gone south. A pack of marauding cannibals who pass while the man and the boy lie hiding might have wandered in from Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s 1985 novel about a brutal band of scalp-hunters who wreak havoc throughout the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The image of a headless infant skewered on a spit brands The Road as the handiwork of McCarthy, the grim reaper of contemporary novelists. And the bleak vision behind the plot is familiar to readers of his earlier books. The man, we are told, “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.”
John Milton’s famous rendition of hell as “darkness visible” echoes in the phrase “darkness implacable.” Also downright Miltonic is the elegant claim that the man and the boy are “each the other’s world entire.” However, McCarthy resists the temptation to luxuriate in the sinuous, lyrical sentences that are his signature in the Border Trilogy. Though he continues to sow recondite terms (crozzled, gyrus, chert, claggy) throughout his text, the baroque profusion has been pruned, the lavish style clarified in the way butter or beer is clarified, reduced to a limpid sublimate. The Road begins in incantation, in bardic evocation of a dream the man experiences while sleeping under a plastic tarpaulin in the cold, dark woods. Despite occasional involuntary visitations of dreams and memories (“You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget,” says the man), McCarthy’s spare prose is refined and annealed to a gist: a man and a boy on the road.
When the man states that they are about 200 miles away from the coast “as the crow flies,” the idiom is gibberish to the boy, who has never seen a crow or anything else that flies. The premise that some unspecified catastrophe could exterminate all species on earth except for a few scattered specimens of Homo sapiens flies in the face of what we know about ecology. However, McCarthy is unabashedly anthropocentric, and he is less interested in constructing an experiment in environmental science than in devising a fable about human identity within a universe in which neither sea nor sky is ever blue, and night brings “a blackness without depth or dimension.” Beyond its futuristic, apocalyptic premise, what is most striking about The Road is the urgent bonding of the man and the boy, who each live for and because of the other. Fiercely protective of his vulnerable young son, his only link to a life he would just as soon abandon, the man takes on the full-time task of child care. He is the boy’s teacher, instructing him in the rudiments of literacy, though reading and writing are superfluous to the survival skills he also passes on. When they chance upon an undamaged can of beans or peaches, he feeds the boy first and has to be chided into taking a portion for himself. During moments of danger, it is the boy’s safety, not his own, that determines the course of action the man pursues. Much literary history is a rogue’s gallery of monstrous fathers—Cronus, who devours his offspring; Titus Andronicus, who murders his own son, Mutius; Huck Finn’s sottish Pap; Dostoevsky’s overbearing Fyodor Karamazov; D.H. Lawrence’s brutish Walter Morel; Henry Roth’s Albert Schearl. But the man in The Road is a paragon of paternal solicitude and love.
Yet in some ways, the boy is father to the man, his better self. When they encounter a stranger, the boy’s instinct is to share their meager store of provisions. The father learns—or relearns—compassion from his son. Eager to think the best of others, the boy longs for companions. By contrast, his father is armored in suspicion, but it is his instinct to assume the worst about strangers that saves the two on more than one occasion. In the dialectic of father and son, of cynicism and idealism, a tentative code of ethics is reborn after everything else has been destroyed. What sustains the two is a belief that they are “the good guys” who “carry the fire” in a dark world. Evidence of cannibalism is everywhere, but the man assures the boy that good guys don’t eat people. However, neither traveler can be confident that any other good guys remain alive anywhere.
At one point, the man comes upon the ruins of a library, its shelves tipped over and thousands of tarnished volumes lying bloated in pools of water. Before rushing back out to the cold, gray light of the road, he thumbs through a book without actually reading it. “He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come,” we are told. “It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.” Though the world he depicts in the pages of his books could hardly seem more hopeless, McCarthy has made a wager with the future. Each sentence is an expectation that the world to come refutes the fable of The Road.
It is customary to invoke William Faulkner in discussions of Cormac McCarthy, to note the latter’s rococo style and anoint him as avatar of the Great Southern Novelist. But The Road has much less in common with the Yoknapatawpha County cycle than it does with the bleak house built by Samuel Beckett. Though the novel’s doleful nomads are described as “the walking dead in a horror film,” they could be walk-ons from a Beckett play. Terse exchanges between the man and the boy resemble the pointless dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. “What are our long term goals?” asks the boy.
“What?”Our long term goals.”Where did you hear that?”I don’t know.”No, where did you?”You said it.”When?”A long time ago.”What was the answer?”I don’t know.”Well. I don’t either. Come on. It’s getting dark.”
It’s getting dark all over, and Godot never comes. Meanwhile, McCarthy offers a clear-eyed guide to how, though we can’t go on, we go on. It is, despite everything, a bracing potion, one for the road.
Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton).