It’s rare that a work of fiction can have intertwine inherent brutality and horror with startling and delicate beauty. The Road, the 2006 novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy, is a masterpiece indeed.
Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.
A man and his son travel through the wasteland of a charred and ruined America. A cartful of supplies and meaningless possession and each other. An unnamed catastrophe, some apocalyptic event has left the Earth a dead husk and McCarthy documents the man and the boy on their harrowing trek to the coast and further south, in the hope they will find less harsh winters, a source of food and more ‘good guys’. On their journey they scavenge abandoned towns and houses for anything salvageable while making discreet fires at night to keep warm. The threat of starvation and the cold keep them moving while they attempt to remain hidden from cannibalistic bloodthirsty tribes that ravage near extinct life.
The cause of the end of civilisation and the death of the world is never explicitly stated or explained but subtlety remembered by the man and hinted at within his thoughts. An event at least a decade before the book takes place has destroyed the world as we know it. Animals are extinct, crops are dead and don’t grow, the earth is strangled by ash that hides the sky and the sun. The vast majority of mankind is dead, left to rot in the cities or the countryside or wherever they fell. Those that survive are either good guys or bad guys.
The man and the boy, the father and the son. We never learn their names and apart from sparse understated and often tense interactions with other people on the road, they are the only characters in the book. They are the good guys. After a confrontation where a man pulls a knife and tries to take the boy, the man is forced to shoot him dead.
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
And they carry the fire – an expression for hope, for goodness and morality. They do not steal from or kill the living, unless they absolutely have to. They do not eat human flesh, no matter how starving and skeletal they become. They are moving south, away from the inevitable death of another winter, with no real motives other than surviving.
The man also has the unenviable task of trying to instill morals into a boy who has only ever known this hell. He has heard stories of what the world used to be like, of nature and beauty and love, but none of that he can visualise on this earth he walks upon. And while the man is keen to reinforce that they are the good guys, there are difficult moments where he must put their lives first. They are the good guys, but the man is also a hardened survivalist who will do anything and risk nothing. The boy always wants to help, he always tries to see the good in people. But the things the man has seen and done to protect the only thing he lives for have made him tough, and this leads to some heartbreaking moments between the two.
He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.
He’s going to die anyway.
He’s so scared, Papa.
The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.
The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head down, sobbing.
You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? He said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.
The relationship between the man and the boy is the glue. They are one another. They rely on each other. The man lives because the boy lives.
[The boy]: What would you do if I died?
[The man]:If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
Their dynamic is all of sweet, tragic, heartbreaking. Their dialogue is short and simple, and always flirts towards topics that the man knows they should not talk about, ideas that he does not want the boy to think about.
How would you know if you were the last man on Earth? He said.
I don’t guess you would know it. You’d just be it.
Nobody would know it.
It wouldn’t make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else died too.
McCarthy has never shied away from violence. I wrote about Child Of God back in January, which focuses on a homicidal necrophiliac as a protagonist. Blood Meridian, certainly one of my favourite novels of all time, describes one violent massacre of cruelty and debauchery to the next.
The Road too, deals with troublesome times. It is not concerned with the apocalypse, the whys and hows of it. Simply put, that doesn’t matter – it’s not important. What McCarthy describes in horrifying beauty (a skill indeed) is a landscape dead and man, devolved to such a point where rape and cannibalism is the fear for the ‘good guys’.
An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. [. . .] The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. [. . .] 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 illcothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each. All passed on. They lay listening.
Are they gone, Papa?
Yes, they’re gone.
Did you see them?
Were they the bad guys?
Yes, they were the bad guys.
Avoiding starvation and freezing to death is only half the battle. Devolved monsters who have survived by carrying out despicable acts and ruling over the weak. The above quote hints at slavery, caravans that walk across the country looking for any other survivors to enslave.
He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
And the insinuation the passage above gives is scarier than anything I’ve ever read, watched, hell experienced in any form of media. We are given a glimpse into what some people are willing to do, and perhaps think they have been forced to do, in order to etch out life and survive during these end times.
For me The Road is compelling and breathtaking. When a writer has a level of mastery of language and storytelling that McCarthy does, the scenarios covered can be violent and despicable, yet still a work of art and elegance. It just works. Their struggle is real.
You feel the cold as the rain starts to beat down on their tarp. You feel their hunger as they rut around in the dirt and ashes of another abandoned house to find nothing but empty tins and rotting meat. You feel their fear as a party of cannibals rumbles past, wagons being pulled by slaves and victims destined to become their sustenance. It is depressingly bleak, and sometimes the brutality of this hopelessness winds you. As a reader, it can be punishing. Questions raised that one shudders to ponder and dares to consider answering.
I wish I was with my mom.
He didnt answer. He sat beside the small figure wrapped in the quilts and blankets. After a while he said: You mean you wish that you were dead.
You musnt say that.
But I do.
Dont say it. It’s a bad thing to say.
I cant help it.
I know. But you have to.
How do I do it?
I dont know.
The man is frequently forced to consider whether this suffering, this existence is worth it. His wife clearly did not think so. Having seen the horrors awaiting she takes suicide over being rape and murdered and eaten.
Will you tell him goodbye?
No. I will not.
Just wait till morning. Please.
I have to go.
She had already stood up.
For the love of God, woman. What am I to tell him?
I cant help you.
Where are you going to go? You cant even see.
I dont have to.
He stood up. I’m begging you, he said.
No. I will not. I cannot.
She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He’d taught her himself.
And she leaves him and the boy, alone. The discussion on suicide had been made, clearly. He had taught the wife and he had taught the boy on what to do. But he couldn’t do it, not while there was hope and not while there was still the boy.
They trekked out along the crescent sweep of beach, keeping to the firmer sand below the tidewrack. They stood, their clothes flapping softly. Glass floats covered with a gray crust. The bones of seabirds. At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulchre. Senseless. Senseless.
Anyone familiar with McCarthy’s writing will not be surprised how he makes the dead earth so believable. The way in which he glides through landscapes is metaphoric poetry.
Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.
And while we spend the short days and long cold nights with these two survivors, through daydreams and nightmares the man recalls how the world used to be. The beauty that is now so long gone and forgotten it is a sadistic joke almost best erased from the mind entirely.
Lying under such a myriad of stars. The sea’s black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different.
Pain when the memory fades, and we are confronted with the truth, the here and now. All there ever has been replaced by the reality of all there ever will be.
He 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. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
And so you can understand and rationalise the reasoning behind the man when he tells the boy;
Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
You forget some things, dont you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.
Yes, there is a horrid bleakness to the so-called ‘existence’ that the boy and the man are living. It hits you like a tonne of bricks. It’s like a living hell. It’s easy to label the book as depressing. But it reaffirms how beautiful our world is, to appreciate what we have, and in retrospect gives true importance to our world. This is what McCarthy does so fantastically. He reinforces how beautiful our world is by creating something utterly terrifying, putting characters we care about and sympathise with in unimaginable situations.
There is an eloquent warning within. A post 9/11 plea for peace or a warning of the dangers of climate change? Or simply a book about faith, love, never giving up in the face of insurmountable odds. McCarthy is believed to have said that the book was dedicated to his son, a love letter to him so to speak. Perhaps that’s what the The Road truly is. Not science fiction, or horror, but a love story.
You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes, you do.
Is the fire real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.