Road, The by McCarthy, Cormac, 2006

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I wrote a review of Cormac McCarthy's the Road two years ago, just after Oprah adopted it into her book club. I loved the book, but I was never very happy with the review. "You missed something the first time around, boy," I kept telling myself. Now that the movie has hit the theaters I thought that I should read it again before seeing the film. The book stood up very well to a second reading, and I think I figured out what it was I missed the first time: The influence of God on the Man and the Boy. I mean, I saw the religious implications of the book, but I railed against the idea that the boy was a Christ figure, as some reviewers at the time were saying. I still think that, but I see different meanings in the religious imagery now. This story shows what it must have been like for those who could not get passage onto Noah's ark. Despite the fact that this book makes use of one of the hippest themes of the day, post apocalypse, the real reason that it is truly loved is because McCarthy's writing is superb. Practically every paragraph folds open further upon deep reflection. The story of the man's relationship with his son is probably what is going to sell a few million tickets to the film, and probably what moved several million copies off of the shelf. But it generally requires a great deal more to change a best-seller into a truly loved book. This is a book that has whatever it is that does that in quantity.

By now we all know the gist of the tale here. Man and Boy - that's the best names that McCarthy ever bothers to give to his characters - are fleeing south ahead of the rapidly advancing ice age from their home in the north. A few years earlier some nameless global calamity struck that was powerful enough to burn large regions of the globe in very different and distant regions. Following the disaster the skies blackened with ash, most - or maybe all - of the plants and animals and people died, and civilization fell and remained down. The few humans who survived until the time of the story sustained themselves either as foragers or hunters of other men. Tiny groups of one or two people scavenged for the remnants of canned or preserved food while large packs of cannibals hunted them for stew, and kept them hobbled and in herds whenever possible. Make no mistake: In terms of vision, this is a bleak one. Into this nightmare McCarthy introduces the remnants of a family, a man, the Man, and a boy, the Boy. There used to be a Woman, a wife, but she did not make it long after the disaster. Once the ash darkened the skies the family held tight in their home while other survivors tore down and consumed everything else around them, including other men. A few years after hte disaster they realized that because sunlight was choked off they would have to move south to a warmer climate. The wife, who loved her son and her husband but mocked them openly for thinking that they would live, took her own life with a piece of obsidian after her husband showed her how to do it one night in a tent. The Man and the Boy quested on.

Technically McCarthy has got the post-apocalypse form down pat: He treats the Earth like a wasted desert, dotted with hidden oases, and peopled with brutal hunters. Imagine this: While on the road the entire world of the Man and the Boy is limited to a tiny circle less than four clicks in diameter. The thick ash that falls constantly prevents on a good day vision past one mile in any direction, and frequently less than that. Everything that the two own they carry from town to town in a rickety old shopping cart. Bridges are frequently gone, cities and forests burned to the ground, dirty snow piles up daily to cover the dirty snow from the day before, roads are snarled with years-old wrecks, and houses and stores - those still standing - stand looted and forlorn. The Man and the Boy traveled through the landscape as one would expect a couple of shell-shocked victims to travel, though they were aware enough of their surroundings to keep themselves relatively safe.

They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he'd seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all the stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world seemed to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell.

The conflict in the book comes from two sources. The obvious first source is the world and the other men in it. Simply put there is nothing to eat and nothing will grow. Many men have realized that if they do not eat other people, they will die, so large numbers of them have banded together to do just that. Cannibals dot this landscape like nothing else. The Man and the Boy are acutely aware that they are out there and do whatever they can to avoid contact with other people. It doesn't always work, and though they did find some people who refrained, they were few and far between. The Man in the Road has dedicated himself to the Boy. The Boy must survive, at all costs, and although the Man has prepared himself mentally to kill the boy if they fall prey to a pack of cannibals - in fact he has a habit of giving the pistol that the two carry to the Boy whenever he put himself into a dangerous situation so that if he was captured the boy could blow his own head off to prevent his own capture - the single purpose of the Man is to spare the boy. The Man has taken to his duty so thoroughly that in his mind he has turned the Boy practically into a God, though not in a mystical way; in the way of something beautiful and pure that must be saved for future generations. For the Man it is almost like the boy is a cathedral, or a scroll, rather then a personification of God:

He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

The Man was not alone in this. Another traveler they met on the road, "Ely" thought the boy was an angel too, but that was probably because he had not seen a child in years. The Boy himself was the only pure and good thing in the book (though the Man's motives are so pure it seems as if they alone will carry the movie - more on that after I see it), so he lived up well to expectations. Of course survival was the Boy's goal too, but his methods were different then his father's. The boy saw what was going on around him and although he was very young - in my mind I put him at six or seven years. He seemed to understand the meaning of it all. Perhaps as a defense mechanism the Boy attached a special significance to the dyad he was a member of beyond its ability to survive: He believed that he and the Man were the "good guys," or the "fire carriers." Like the Man's beliefs, the Boy's suggest also that they are carrying something of significance for future generations. By bearing "fire," which must be analogous to goodness, or civility, or society or something of that nature, the two of them bear something important that other people will cherish later. Throughout the book the Man did what men do to survive in such a world: He killed when necessary, though without cruelty, without rancor, or hatred, or vengeance. Perhaps only with some fear. In a non-Judeo-Christian way, he killed without sin, and in fact convinced the boy that murder was a sacred duty, but only when done with the right intention.

My job is to take care of you. I was appointed by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?

The Boy hated that the Man killed, but tolerated it and used those opportunities to reaffirm their purpose as he saw it. He may even have bought into the Man's vision: In one cryptic response to a different question the Boy utters in a line that is suitably remote to the question, "I am the one." The Man, who but for one or two occasions never felt that the boy could do wrong, reassured him and moved them forward down the road. At least that was the way encounters with others went, right up until the end of the book. Near the end of the story the Man and the Boy came to the southern coast of whatever land it was they were in and found a beached boat. The boat was full of supplies and the Man spent days wading back and forth between the boat and shore to bring them back for their cart. After exhausting themselves with that work they ventured away from their full cart for a short time, and while they were gone a filthy, emaciated wretch stole it from them. The Man and the Boy tracked the thief in the sand and snow and confronted him on the road. Calm in voice but inwardly enraged, the Man forced the thief to give them back the cart at gunpoint, then give everything else that he had, including his the rags he wore as clothes and his shoes. Of course that was a death sentence, but the thief complied and the Man left him in the road naked and freezing while the Boy pleaded with him to give him his stuff back and leave him some food. But instead of thinking about how he and his son missed a close call, the only thing he could focus on was how the wretch almost killed them, so he ignored his son's pleas. After that, something subtle in the world changed. As soon as the man made up his mind, God spoke.

He got up and walked out to the road. The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. That salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke those lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reconable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.

One of the most moving passages in a book that is chock full of them, this is where God turned his back on the Man and sentenced him to a death that would occur within a few pages. As a divine revelation this is very subtle, but the purpose of the journey changed after that, and following that, the people who were on it. To tell more would leave you with nothing to find on your own, so I'll stop here.

One of the most compelling and thought provoking aspects of the book was McCarthy's writing style. This is literature in the traditional sense of the work, and McCarthy is a master author. For those few of you who may have missed the news, McCarthy won a Pulitzer Prize in literature for The Road. I think it was well deserved. The story is told in stark, sparse prose, unadorned with punctuation more exotic than a period and an occasional dash or comma. For the most part the story is told in short paragraphs with no chapter breaks, and while their observations and reactions are simply told, what goes on in the world and in their bodies behind them is told with a deep richness.

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. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his 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 know it must.

The purpose is to reflect the shock of the characters, and the effect is numbing, especially after long periods of reading. The first time I read this book I heard my own inner voice as it sounds outside after a snow storm, when the wind has stopped and nothing is melting and snow covers everything - very muted, as the Man and the Boy must have heard their own voices between the walls of ash and dust. McCarthy also has a penchant for compound words, which is something that I have always found to be endearing and reminiscent of country sensibilities. I have noticed that the Swedes do this a lot, so the practice may have some association with epic literature, which this story qualifies as. He morphs descriptive phrases practically into personal nouns that lend a strong sense of familiarity to the text. Here though they also contribute to the sense of loss. This is from a scene where the Man took his son into the wreck of the house he grew up in.

The rooms empty. In the small room off the diningroom there was a large bare iron cot, a metal foldingtable. The same castiron coalgrate in the small fireplace.

And for all this doom and gloom, McCarthy does give a tale of parental love that is at times warm and comforting, and full of parental wisdom.

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy's hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

The Man tried valiantly to strike some sort of balance between the survival level existence they were forced to pursue and the molly-coddling love we typically bestow upon our very young. I'm sure you can guess which way the teeter usually lay. As I read I looked for religious symbolism that would decry a father's love for son and support a penitent's love for salvation, and while the tone of the book followed the latter, the Man's interactions with the boy was more the former. This was not a love for a god-child, as the teachers and regents of someone like King Tut would likely have had. This was a dad doing his best to give his kid what he needed to survive without becoming an example of evil, making compromises that benefited and showed love for the boy.

There are a few odd things to watch out for. Ordinarially there is something purging and enlightening about journeys, and books that convey the story of a journey usually convey those senses too. I'm pretty sure that the public will be split on whether that happens here. Some may say "yes," but most probably not. Another thing to be aware of is that is that the Boy (and the Man both) failed to overcome or come to grips with the environment. The world in this book never really changed; it was at the end what it was in the beginning. The characters moved through it not so much in an attempt to overcome it, but just to survive it. As a result the sunny feelings you may get at the end of the book should fade relatively quickly. There is no resolution; there's only an important passing of a torch here, and the questions, issues and hurdles that existed at the beginning of the book certainly existed at the end. Unless, of course, you have faith that the boy is now on the Path of God. And bully to you if you do.

Even if you have not read this book yet, I'm pretty sure that you have encountered the hype. Yes, it's about a loving relationship between man and son, and yes, it's about survival of that man and son, but even more it is about preserving something good for the future of mankind. Here the boy was that something, but it was not his genes that warranted salvation; it was the ideas that he bore in his mind, the concept that youth in general should have a chance to make a good name for itself before the justice of God condemns them to a fate that we, as adults, likely should bear for our sins. The book is about potential in the future, not the actual transportation of something that will make it good because it has gotten to a physical location. It does it beautifully and frighteningly.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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