"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, February 03, 2007

McCarthy does some

hard traveling on 'The Road'

The Road

Cormac McCarthy

Picador, 241 Pages, 24 dollars

Bleak, desolate, cheerless, barren, joyless, disheartening--there are over a dozen synonyms in the thesaurus, but none of them really do justice to Cormac McCarthy's stark, dark vision of postapocalyptic America put forth in The Road.

And yet, amid the cold ashes of a nuclear winter, McCarthy shows us a tiny, glowing ember of hope in the love between a father and son and the purity of a small boy's heart.

In an ash-covered world of eternal twilight and biting cold, where nothing grows and the living often envy the desiccated corpses that litter the landscape, a nameless, tubercular father and his sickly young son travel the highways of the Northeastern United States, heading south and east. Their goal is the distant coast, where they hope in vain that things will be better somehow. Masked against the drifting ash, their meagre possessions piled in a shopping cart, the two trek on, scavenging canned food, tools and clothing where they are able and dodging gangs of cannibalistic bandits and slavers. Their only protection from such marauders is a revolver with just enough ammunition to take their own lives. Their only safeguard against the constant specter of death from starvation and cold is each other.

It is about as cheerful as it sounds. McCarthy's greatest strength as a writer is not his plots or characters, but the atmosphere he creates through artful minimalist descriptions and sparse narration. The atmosphere here is forbidding, to say the least.

At the same time, in a strange way, The Road may be McCarthy's warmest, most emotional work. The contrast between the bleak, hopeless landscape of a dying Earth and the tenderness for each other displayed by the father and son is heartrending.

McCarthy describes the two as "each the other's world entire" and it is clear that while it is the man who keeps the boy alive by foraging for food, building fires and protecting him from human predators, the father needs the son as much or even more than the son needs a provider and protector. The man, like the rest of the world, is dying and knows it, but goes to great pains to keep hope alive in the boy that things will get better. Despite having abandoned any pretense of morality in their fight for survival, the man draws strength from his son's insistence on kindness to strangers and faith that the parent and child are "the good guys." In an utterly amoral world, the boy is his father's moral compass, keeping him from following the rest of the world into savagery. At one point the child pleads for the life of a starving stranger who has stolen all their possessions, convincing the father to let the man go free after they have reclaimed their food and meagre equipment:

"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 bowed, 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."

Indeed, the boy is the personification of all the good left in the man's world. His wife has given in to despair and taken her own life, and every vestige of the old world is gone. He stays alive only to make sure the boy survives and does not despair.

The two live a life of almost complete immediacy. For them there is no future but the vague aim of reaching the coast and, for the boy at least, no memory of the past except for a hazy recollection of his dead mother.

McCarthy's spare prose matches the barren landscape of the novel. It is stripped even of much of the punctuation--there are no quotation marks and precious few commas or apostrophes. Like Hemingway, McCarthy pares his writing down to the barest essentials, purging it of descriptive excess and extended metaphor until it becomes akin to prose poetry. One can open the book and chose a passage almost at random and see McCarthy's mastery of rhythm and imagery:

"In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all."

Unlike Hemingway--whose entire body of work probably comprises a lexicon of no more than a few thousand words and only a few hundred of those of more than three syllables--McCarthy has a clear affection for using obscure but appropriate terminology. The man descends to a "gryke" in the stone of a mountainside; a roaming bandit army is accompanied by a "consort of catamites"; the man and boy are described as "mendicant friars."

Despite the gloom and doom, the book is ultimately uplifting and even moving, without descending into mawkish sentimentality or emotionalism. McCarthy is one of the most skilled writers working today, and The Road shows him at the top of his form.

(Feb. 3, 2007)

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