David J. Voelker: Review of Cormac McCarthy's, The Road (New York: Knopf, 2006)
[Mr. Voelker is an assistant professor of humanistic studies and history at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. He would like to thank Ruth Homrighaus and Brian Steele for their assistance in preparing this essay.]
Cormac McCarthy has made a name for himself as a profusely literate author of
fiction about the American past. His 1985 novel,
Blood Meridian, for instance, desanctified
the ideology euphemistically known
as"Manifest Destiny." In McCarthy's
blood-soaked visions of the past,
violence is violence, and death, death. His latest novel,
The Road, envisions a future just as
violent as his imagined past. But there is a difference. In this
bleakest of fictions--all the bleaker because of its plausibility--history
provides a faint gleam of hope, even as global catastrophe eclipses
The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic future, a future in which death is legibly written upon the landscape. Ravaged by nuclear winter, the earth no longer sustains plants or animals, save for a scattered and debased remnant of humanity that survives by scavenging, thieving, and cannibalizing. With uncharacteristic economy, McCarthy describes the catastrophe that triggered the destruction of the global ecosystem and, with it, human civilization:"The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. . . . A dull glow arose in the windowglass" (45). These few words provide all the explanation that we need.
Set several years after the cataclysm, the novel follows a father ("the man") and son ("the boy" of about four or five years old) on their journey along"the road" through an unnamed region of what used to be the western United States. They are heading south to escape a winter whose harshness is exacerbated by the fact that the sun barely penetrates the ashened sky. The earth itself has become a death camp where starvation and other humans pose a constant threat.
Civilization has totally collapsed. History itself has been irrecoverably destroyed. The few survivors sift through the rubble with no possibility of reassembling the pieces. Society exists only in the form of gangs of thugs who hunt down, dispossess, and eat other survivors. Survival requires a readiness to fight. Fittingly, then, the narrative eye falls continually on the man's pistol, which figures as both a tool of defense and a means of possible self-annihilation, should death become preferable to life.
While the man keeps himself going solely for the sake of his son, he sustains the boy with stories about their journey. The barely articulated theme of these stories, that the two are " carrying the fire," seems to refer to preserving some essence of civilization, of life before the collapse. (McCarthy also used the image of" carryin fire in a horn" in the last page of No Country for Old Men, which was published in 2005.) In the stories, the man and his son are different from the"bad guys" marauding on the road. They are the"good guys" who try to help other people. Although the stories do not reflect the ugly reality of the pair's struggles, they provide the man and the boy with a purpose: they are searching for other people like themselves.
When push comes to shove--as it inevitably and repeatedly does on the road--the man readily uses violence to defend himself and his son, although he has a tendency to pull punches for the sake of the boy, who functions as the pair's conscience. Somehow, despite all of the death, dying, and even killing that the boy has seen, he has absorbed from his father a sense that rules of right and wrong still apply. He knows little of the world that has passed. And he does not quite see his world for what it is: the scene of a zero-sum struggle for survival, where helping someone can mean forfeiting one's own existence.
Even as the man tries to relinquish his grip on the vanished past, he gifts something of it to his son. Herein lies the glimmer of hope, the father's hope against hope that his son might carry some spark of human culture--something that transcends the primal drive to survive--into the future, however uncertain that future might be. At moments, naturally, the hope seems quixotic. The father likens his son to a performer"who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves" (66). Later, when the boy, imitating his father's diction, asks about their"long term goals" (135), the father has no ready response. Still, his sense of loss does not lead him to total despair.
In this novel, destruction happens in a flash, but one has to ask the question: Are we not already on the road? Many civilizations of the past have faced extinction, but we live in the only civilization that could destroy itself (and is) by immolating the very earth that sustains it. The novel ends with a lament:"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. . . . On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery" (241). This passage evokes the conclusion of On the Origin of Species, in which Charles Darwin beautifully describes the grandeur of"an entangled bank," bustling with life. Evolutionists and creationists both recognize that humanity did not create itself; we cannot survive planetary ecological catastrophe. We already live in a world where some things cannot"be made right again," but we have not yet witnessed the end of history. McCarthy's darkly brilliant novel urges us to continue asking: Where are we? How did we arrive here? From what possible futures can we choose?