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by Cormac McCarthy
Vintage Books, 2007
(287 pages, $14.95, paperback)
reviewed by Robert Elder
As I read The Road, I kept imagining two people sitting on a darkened stage with the ruins of the world around them, one saying, “Everything is gone,” and the other asking, “What is left?” Cormac McCarthy is probably best known for All the Pretty Horses, and for his unflinching commitment to portrayals of human depravity.
His newest novel has been either hailed as the best work of an aging American master or denounced as the betrayal of an existential vision so severe that he is easily in the running for author of the most violent novel in the American canon ( Blood Meridian). I believe it is partly McCarthy’s answer to the question “What is left?” that has split readers’ opinions.
A Dark Vision
Taking place in what appears to be a nuclear winter following a global disaster, The Road follows a man and his son fleeing south through the smoldering remains of the world for reasons unknown to us, and possibly unknown to them. Everything about the novel is stark, yet McCarthy achieves rich descriptions of a dead world using a sparse, muscular style and an evocative vocabulary.
It is not an easy book to read, unrelentingly dark and often searing in its descriptions of the human remnant’s violence and depravity. McCarthy rarely dwells on these horrors, but they allow him to portray an alternative vision that derives much of its power and beauty from the contrast. In the midst of a nearly unbearable outer darkness, he gives his readers refuge in the profoundly simple exchanges between a father and son.
The desolation of a post-Apocalyptic world allows McCarthy to ask complex questions that are nevertheless stark in their moral content: Is one allowed to let another human being starve in order to feed one’s child? Is it wrong to kill a person if by that act you spare him from a certain and more horrible death? Is suicide acceptable when you do it to preserve food and therefore life? Is suicide acceptable when life is, by any standard, not worth living? What is life for?
These are the sorts of questions that crowd McCarthy’s world, questions that his characters are forced to answer without the luxury of equivocation, in a world stripped of the materials modern people use to cover their compromises.
Pragmatism & Purity
In his two characters, McCarthy presents a study of the tension between pragmatism and purity.
The father is burdened with a responsibility—caring for his son—that complicates his moral choices. He is frequently presented with situations that demand pragmatic decisions in exchange for their survival, and yet, even in transgressing boundaries, he seems to acknowledge their fixedness. “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” he says, trying to justify this to his son.
The son is a character of elemental innocence who throws the pragmatism of the father into sharp relief. He is strict with himself and his father, always asking if the owners of the houses they loot for food and supplies are alive (in which case they are stealing) or dead. He is compassionate towards others even when that compassion threatens their survival. “He was just hungry,” he says, begging his father not to leave a thief without clothes or food that they desperately need themselves.
He is certainly a type of Christ figure, but his innocence is human—rooted in his ignorance. He can offer no solutions to the often intractable problems that he and his father face; he can only offer the simple, pure, innocent, and blind response of his conscience.
It is his son’s innocence, along with his life, that the father struggles to preserve as they make their way south. The physical journey they are making to save their lives becomes a metaphorical journey to preserve something else, something they call “the fire.” In a moment when it is uncertain whether the father can go on, the son begins:
“I want to be with you.”
“ You can’t.”
“ You can’t, you have to carry the fire.”
“ I don’t know how to.”
“ Yes you do.”
“ Is it real, the fire?”
“ Yes it is.”
This is what is left. The fire. McCarthy leaves “the fire” largely undefined, but not indefinable. The fire is what is left when men destroy everything but themselves and drift unmoored from the restraints that civilization places on them.
The Fire Preserved
I would say the fire is mankind’s conscience, which, though it works in each of us individually, is also the common property of all mankind whether they follow it or not. The father’s effort to preserve his son’s innocence lends weight to this view, for a pure flame is a thing to be preserved at all costs.
McCarthy is not the sort of writer woodenly to link this fire to God, and the fire’s source remains as ambiguous as its character. Still, it plainly resides in mankind, and near the end of the book, when a wise and good character reminds the son that “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time,” we are, I think, invited to consider its source and character.
Roughly contemporaneous with the publishing of The Road, we have seen the emergence on an international scale of a character that used to be called the village atheist. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, all believe in the possibility of a godless morality. Such a morality would be socially constructed, of course, and it would have to have as its ultimate referent the culture that produced and practiced it; but for them, this is infinitely preferable to the idea of an absolute moral law that has as its referent an absolute lawgiver.
We should contemplate, then, what it means that Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road, and what it means that he won the Pulitzer Prize for it. Perhaps it is a testament to the enduring and self-apparent wisdom of Truth. Like McCarthy’s fire, the Truth is, and remains, because it first was and always has been. We should have more faith in this than we sometimes do.
Robert Elder is currently writing a dissertation at Emory University on honor culture and Evangelical Christianity in the nineteenth-century American South. He writes the weblog, Clio and Calvin. He lives in Decatur, Georgia, with his wife Catherine, and is a member of Christ Church Presbyterian.