The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a book that marks the end of something. Most obviously it’s a book about the end of the world as we know it. It follows the adventures of “the man” and “the boy” as they travel along a road that cuts through an unnamed American landscape covered in the dirty ash of nuclear winter. They’re cold, hungry, and on the run from the kinds of wasteland punks familiar to fans of the Mad Max films:

An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. . . . The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. . . . Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.

I invoke Mad Max for several reasons here. In the first place because, as I’ve argued before, McCarthy is a profoundly cinematic writer both in terms of style and subject matter. One simply cannot imagine the Judge in Blood Meridian without seeing Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, or the discovery of the cash in No Country For Old Men without being reminded of Blondie and Tuco coming across the stagecoach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But I also mention Mad Max because the whole post-apocalyptic film genre, of which the Mad Max films were among the best, was a product of the 1980s (though connoisseurs of this form of entertainment may point to 1977’s Damnation Alley, or even earlier flicks, as evidence that it had been around for a while). The end of the world was even on television, with big productions like The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). My point is that, in addition to being very fond of the movies, McCarthy also has his head stuck in the 80s. (Before that watershed this would have been a better book, as it in fact was in 1968’s Outer Dark.) This fixation is something I addressed in my review of No Country For Old Men – a novel set in the ’80s – and it’s worth keeping in mind here. The Road is not a nightmare vision of the future, but a dream of apocalypses past.

Nuclear war, at least of the kind imagined here, was a 1980s anxiety. Nowadays when we imagine the end of the world we tend to think in terms of some kind of plague or natural catastrophe (cue more film footage, this time from The Day After Tomorrow). So The Road is definitely a throwback to previous ends of the world. It is not, as it has been interpreted, a response to post-9/11 or post-Katrina America. Its only political dimension is Cold War good vs. evil, us vs. them, the “carriers of the fire” vs. the “bloodcults.” And its closest literary cousins, like its drive-in movie origins, are pop trash: the Left Behind series and Stephen King’s The Stand.

This may sound like I’m being unduly harsh on what is, after all, a ripping good yarn. But for a writer of McCarthy’s reputation I feel some need to calm the discussion down a bit. In the first place, I’m feeling a lot less impressed these days when he steps into his oracular yet cornpone philosophy, registered in what are usually, and I think somewhat lazily, described as “Biblical cadences” (e.g., “The snow fell nor did it cease to fall”). I mean, of course, passages like this:

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with this arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in this skull cranked out their reckonings. An old chronicle. To seek out the upright. No fall but preceded by a declination. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet it must know.

I like this as writing, especially the way it starts out with the ears hurting to listen and the “autistic dark,” but the rest of it seems to be windy and overblown. Is that the Foucault’s pendulum in the rotunda of the UN building? Is all of this hooey, in the end, just an evocation of gravity? Is that all that’s meant by the “old chronicle . . . to seek out the upright”? And this, I might add, is when McCarthy’s at his best. Elsewhere one learns to expect regular time-outs for what is mere verbal upholstery:

Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

Now as a matter of fact, I think this is great. But what I mean by that is that it’s great shit. Some readers have found existential or spiritual messages in The Road, but I am sure they are deluded. There is no more significance or meaning to any of the undeniably effective and unforgettable scenes in this book (the discovery of the humans being kept for food in the cellar, the remains of the baby brochette) than you will get out of one of Romero’s living dead films. And those movies are a far from invalid analogy. Romero’s cannibal nightmares really are commentaries on such subjects as race, class, and consumerism. For all its linguistic and narrative skill, The Road signifies what?

Yes, there is skill on display. The dialogue, as always, is wonderful. The characters have their usual archetypal strength (though this time there are no interesting villains). The variations in voice, alternating between exactly described mechanical operations like fixing the wheel on the shopping cart and the aforementioned invocations of a nameless otherwhere, are smooth as butter. Some things stick out as problems. One has trouble imagining a shopping cart being pushed through snowy woods, for example. The ending is, oddly for McCarthy, an unbelievable stretch into feel-good territory. And leaving out the apostrophe is fine, but why then retain “it’s”? As in “I dont know. But it’s okay now.” I’m not sure what principle is being insisted on by keeping the apostrophe in this one case and not in any other. Grammar and sense have already been sacrificed on the altar of sound.

And so we come to the end . . . of something. At bottom this is a book for fourteen year-old boys, and I’m not sure where McCarthy can go from here. A career that has devolved into writing stylish literary novelizations of spaghetti westerns and zombie films may have run its course.

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but in pop fiction.

Review first published online January 8, 2007.

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