I'm ten years late getting around to reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but since it has to rank among the most powerful pieces of American fiction written in the past ten years, it remains more than worthy of discussion. McCarthy here tells a tale of nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.
We're in the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction -- it could have been a nuclear war -- The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Apparently most animals are extinct, and the few human beings who survive face fellow humans who are, largely, living beastly lives. Here's what the world looks like when it's gone:
"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."Oddly enough, it is passages like these, what one critic called this violent grotesque world rendered in gorgeous, melancholic, even biblical cadences, that somehow save the reader from descending into total despair.
You don't have to read far into this book to realize that if something like this conflagration ever descends upon our world, the most fortunate of human beings will be those who die quickly. The world of The Road is a dead world. All the old rules by which people live their lives have been abrogated. A father and son wander through the devastation, on their way somewhere in search of survival. When they share some food with an old man they encounter on the road, he never thanks them. "Thank you" has gone out with the going out of the world.
"You won't wish us luck either, will you?" says the father.We meet the mother of the boy and wife of the main protagonist only for one brief scene, but that scene is powerfully written, and it rings true. She tells her husband she is about to commit suicide, and she departs with no loving words for him, or for the universe.
The old man replies, "I don't know what that would mean. What luck would look like. Who would know such a thing?"
"We're not survivors; we're the walking dead in a horror film. . . I didn't bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I'm done. . . My only hope is for eternal nothingness, and I hope it with all my heart."She goes on to insist that surviving only for oneself is impossible:
"A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love."The dire tragedy depicted here can also apply to the human condition in general. The wife's words about how, if one wishes to survive one needs someone to live for, are equally true of old men and women in our un-apocalyptic world who lose their spouses late in life. Cobbling together "some passable ghost" is exactly what bereaved spouses do when they spend time talking alone to their dead loved ones.
Then again, even if we never have to see the world end before our eyes, each of us must face the hurts and pains and losses of any life. We also must face the ending of our own personal worlds and, like the wife of the novel, we haven't brought ourselves to any of this -- we were brought.
There is no place left for a God in the crozzled hearts of The Road's characters. At the end, the father finally gives up his struggle to survive, tells his son to go on without him, and dies. Then, abruptly, God is back in the person of a "good guy," with two children and a wonderful wife, who ambles into the book and adopts the boy, saving him from a certain death.
In light of the bleak reality McCarthy has been describing for the first 280 pages of the book, I'm not sure what the author is up to with the unbelievable Deus ex machina ending. Is the appearance of the miraculous family in one of the boy's dreams, or that of his dying father?
McCarthy gives us nothing to suggest the scene is other than reality. With his consummate feel for the artistic integrity of the structure, he could not have believed he could get away with this ending. But since this ending is there, we can only look past the final six pages, and exult in the artistry of this brilliant book.