Survival Among the Ruins


How is it that Jim Crace, an English novelist, and our own Cormac McCarthy sat down at about the same time to write novels about a blistered, disintegrating, post-nuclear-war America? Crace’s The Pesthouse, published in May, and McCarthy’s The Road, out last year and recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, feature the same sort of characters doing virtually the same thing-trekking across dead lands toward a coast, hoping to escape stone-age cultures of cannibals, pirates, slave-traffickers, thieves, prostitutes, and weird religious cults.

Their novels have inaugurated what appears to be a surging wave of post-9/11 fiction in which a superpower is engulfed in epic self-destruction. These are tales of warning wrung out of today’s news, when hardly a newspaper or magazine can avoid dire predictions of our imminent collapse as a nation or empire. The dark prophesies often end on a positive note-our problems are fixable, however serious they seem. We can shrink the Pentagon, try diplomacy with Syria and Iran, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and elect decent, reasonable men and women for the next administration. All that is in the can-do American spirit. But what if we don’t fix things? What if we let them go to their final destination in collapse? What then?

That is what these two novelists asked themselves. Rather than find an easy way out, they let the worst happen-and show us in vivid detail what it would be like to lose our country. That’s scary, and it is worth undertaking Crace’s and McCarthy’s treks to imagine the death of a nation we thought was above the folly of its ruling class.

McCarthy is a master of the picaresque novel in which two young men saddle up and ride across the Southwestern deserts to make their ritual descent into Mexico. He did this handsomely in The Crossing and his masterpiece, Blood Meridian.

The Road, reviewed in the October 20, 2006, issue of the Observer, simplifies plot and vocabulary, and seemingly pursues the same path toward audiences that Oprah Winfrey controls. Her endorsement of the book for her book club, which specializes in reconciliation and rehab themes, signaled McCarthy’s arrival to the mass market. The Pulitzer followed shortly.

For McCarthy to construct a model of a dead America is to shock us into realizing the mortality underlying a nation’s patriotic symbolism and hyperbole. The title preserves one of the central myths of American life-our freedom to roam, to pursue our fortunes. Only the exercise of a father and son “going west” in The Road ends up nowhere, and never had a promising start to begin with. Finally, after all these years, McCarthy has allegorized a landscape to mean something we all know in our nightmares-a faltering nation poised to devour itself.

McCarthy’s strength is that he doesn’t have to probe around in the interiors of characters who don’t think much anyway; their plight is the real story. The rotting and diseased civilizations they are born into are enough to suggest their general identities, and what they do to survive typifies the average mortal in a similar fix. McCarthy’s heroes are just a little quicker and meaner than most.

The Road may be misleading on first reading. Like its predecessors, it indulges in lurid scenes of human depravity and the bleak prospects of survival without hope or meaning after a nuclear apocalypse. Life is that Hobbesian nightmare of brevity and brutishness found elsewhere in McCarthy’s work, with the exception that a father does indeed possess the moral imperative to protect his son, to keep the race alive against all odds. Though McCarthy is not one to moralize or tidy up loose ends in his plots, this saga closes significantly on the sudden appearance of a stranger willing to take care of the son after his father succumbs to tuberculosis.

McCarthy spends his energy describing the look and feel, sound and smell of a dead nation. He puts us there, lets us feel the terror of having no one to turn to for help. Everything America once stood for is gone; the library is a hulk of empty shelves and charred pages. The cities are rubble fields, the houses are empty. This Everyman and his son represent any of us who might one day inherit such a disaster and have to forage among its burnt remains to stay alive. The most harrowing part of this book is not the destruction wrought by holocaust, but the corpse of a nation-without soul, vision, or future.

Crace’s The Pesthouse throws its holocaust into the deep past and the American cities his two characters encounter. Franklin and Margaret (Pigeon and Mags when they get to know each other better) are no more than ancient ruins. Along the Atlantic Coast (they trek east in this account), they find the hulks of refineries whose purpose has long been forgotten. There is no written language or other semblance of civilization, other than small hamlets and a port where vessels select young laborers and marriageable young women to sell to the “other side,” that is, Europe. History is reversed for these immigrants who want to return to the safety of the Old World. Crace’s America is as bleak as McCarthy’s. Nothing remains but the port from which everyone wants to sail away.

Everybody among the emigrants dreamed of walking out through the double gates to see a sail ship in the estuary. Another month would see them free again. A month was nothing to endure. Then America could be a nightmare left behind.

After the holocaust, America is a land of bondage and despair, and the Old World is the promised land. Crace expands this theme later to say of his gentle giant, Franklin, “His dream was not the future but the past. Some land, a cabin, and a family.” His situation is none too secure-Margaret is not yet his lover, and the girl Bella, whom Margaret steals from a hapless grandmother, is supposedly the daughter he will raise once he finds a home again. He is no better off than anyone else left wandering in the ruins. The word American stands for those rejected and left behind. As one woman at the port observes, “We’re all Americans now. No ship’ll take us, not one of us.” Another character “wondered if America had once been populated by a race of fools. So many old things from that time had lost their grip on the world and dropped away, it seemed to her.”

Crace’s prose is gluey at times as he tries to probe some interesting tidbit of his characters’ thoughts, most of which deal with grubbing for tubers, forcing down oily smoked fish from a shed they come upon, or just keeping out of the way of the body robbers. He too is going beyond the editorials and the doomsday books to provide a detailed, fictional landscape in which to explore a dead America, killed off by all those forces that are now only trends and speculations in books on the best-seller list. Crace wants to illuminate and understand the disastrous consequences of what we merely hypothesize at the moment, to make real the calamitous end of a nation by lavishing all these expository minutiae on everything one must do just to stay alive.

Crace seems aware that his story is a bit tedious-a couple wheeling a “keel” wagon, used for hauling boats, with their belongings heaped on it, with the girl Bella riding in a pannier of their one remaining horse (they ate the other one). They trudge along, descending the hills until they reach the port town of Tidewater (Virginia?). Then, as if Crace had run out of ideas what to do next, he turns them around and heads them back to the Midwest prairies where Franklin came from. But Crace makes the same point as McCarthy-if a vast intellectual structure defining a nation collapses, it swallows everything with it-purpose, meaning, ambition, desire, and consolation. His characters head off hoping out of old habit for better times, but the plot is more sinister and pessimistic-the heroes risk all going one way, and then go in reverse, goaded by the same flimsy faith. The narrator has nothing to say about their chances.

Paul Christensen writes frequently about contemporary issues. His most recent book is Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence (Wings Press).