Reflections on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Cormac McCarthy employs a scorched earth poetic in his newest novel, The Road, that even his magisterial Blood Meridian does not rival. Both are poetic marvels, danses macabre though they may be, of a writer in full control of his powers, but there is a profound sparsity to the former that the parched bleakness of the latter does not even try to conceive. Where, for example, the much-noted violence of Blood Meridian is overwhelming in its being so graphically detailed (e.g., the Comanche raid at the end of chapter four – it’s only two paragraphs long, but it stayed with me in my nightmares for two weeks), The Road is most haunting in what goes unsaid between the pauses that take the place of chapter divisions. Indeed, much more is unsaid here than is said. We don’t know exactly, for instance, what has happened to the world, but everything changed in an instant – the catastrophe we fear today was sprung upon humanity with a flash of light and a sudden shudder of the earth, leaving men, women, and children to their own devices. Most died; others banded in ruthlessly survivalistic hordes willing both to harvest and kill other humans for food; and then others, like the father and son whose story is told here, merely survived. Their survival, we learn, is contingent upon moving along the road, but to nowhere in particular.

In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all be carried off by wolves. (66)

In his earlier novels, especially before the much-hyped Border Trilogy, McCarthy was most often compared to Faulkner and Melville. Here, the only fitting comparisons I can come up with immediately are Conrad and Beckett. (All of this, though, raises the question, what would it mean to “sound like” Cormac McCarthy?) Much of The Road plays out like an existential drama – enigmatic and forlorn as much as it is comedic – and rich in a laconic dialogue that says more, maybe, than it would appear to. An example, unrepresentative only inasmuch as it is not between the father and his son, but between the father and an anonymous old man they happen across:

You can’t go with us, you know, the man said.
He nodded.
How long have you been on the road?
I was always on the road. You cant stay in one place.
How do you live?
I just keep going. I knew this was coming.
You knew it was coming?
Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.
Did you try to get ready for it?
No. What would you do?
I dont know.
People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.
I guess not.
Even if you knew what to do you wouldnt know what to do. You wouldnt know if you wanted to do it or not. Suppossed you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?
Do you wish you would die?
No. But I might wish I had died. When you’re alive you’ve always got that ahead of you.
Or you might wish you’d never been born.
Well. Beggars cant be choosers.
You think that would be asking too much.
What’s done is done. Anyway, it’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.
I guess so.
Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave. He lifted his head and looked across the fire at the boy. Then he looked at the man. The man could see his small eyes watching him in the firelight. God knows what those eyes saw. He got up to pile more wood on the fire and he raked the coals back from the dead leaves. The red sparks rose in a shudder and died in the blackness overhead. The old man drank the last of his coffee and set the bowl before him and leaned toward the heat with his hands out. The man watched him. How would you know if you were the last man on earth? he said.
I dont guess you would know it. You’d just be it.
Nobody would know it.
It wouldnt make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.
I guess God would know it. Is that it?
There is no God.
There is no God and we are his prophets.
I dont understand how you’re still alive. How do you eat?
I dont know.
You dont know?
People give you things.
People give you things.
To eat.
To eat. Yes.
No they dont.
You did.
No I didnt. The boy did.
There’s other people on the road. You’re not the only ones.
Are you the only one?
The old man peered warily. What do you mean? he said.
Are there people with you?
What people?
Any people.
There’s not any people. What are you talking about?
I’m talking about you. About what line of work you might be in.
The old man didnt answer.
I suppose you want to go with us.
Go with you.
You wouldn’t take me with you.
You dont want to go.
I wouldnt have even come this far but I was hungry.
The people that gave you food. Where are they?
There’s not any people. I just made that up.
What else did you make up?
I’m just on the road the same as you. No different.
Is your name really Ely?
You dont want to say your name.
I dont want to say it.
I couldnt trust you with it. To do something with it. I dont want anybody talking about me. To say where I was or what I said when I was there. I mean, you could talk about me maybe. But nobody could say that it was me. I could be anybody. I think in times like these the less said the better. If something had happened and we were survivors and we met on the road then we’d have something to talk about. But we’re not. So we dont.
Maybe not.
You just dont want to say in front of the boy.
You’re not a shill for a pack of roadagents?
I’m not anything. I’ll leave if you want me to. I can find the road.
You dont have to leave.
I’ve not seen a fire in a long time, that’s all. I live like an animal. You dont want to know the things I’ve eaten. When I saw that boy I thought I had died.
You thought he was an angel?
I didnt know what he was. I never thought to see a child again. I didnt know that would happen.
What if I said that he’s a god?
The old man shook his dead. I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Sure. We’ll all be better off. We’ll all breathe easier.
That’s good to know.
Yes it is. When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the roads there will be nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?

This may be an altogether unsurprising conclusion coming from me, but I think The Road betrays a radical theological awareness of the death of God. For starters, and I will not be giving too much away by saying this, the father only truly lives through the son, and the son lives most fully through his acute awareness of others (thus shattering an all-too-easy dialectic) – an awareness that the father does not, and apparently cannot, share.

This surface-level appraisal of the father & son is only coherently theological, though, when it is provided its fullest context; namely, the novel’s darknes , and I should reiterate that this is probably McCarthy at his most dark, for here the reader is not rescued by his virtuosic verbosity, and thus by the reassuring presence of the author. Where there is hope in even Blood Meridian that “the kid” might get away alive from his ill-fated misadventure and, more importantly, Judge Holden, the reader of The Road has no such illusions. One continues reading, rather, in order to see how it ends, not because there is any reason for hope extended – the world as we know it, and “as we know it” is all that the world is, is finished. Which is to say, The Road makes for a very despairing read. And yet, in the midst of this despair and darkness, one intuits something else – not on the far side of the darkness, and certainly not a glimmer or shimmer of light – something other than just the dark, maybe even something redemptive of the dark, within the dark.

The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared. Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts. They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold. They talked hardly at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He’d stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle. (230)

It sounds sappy in hindsight, but McCarthy seems to flesh out what he only hints at in the Border Trilogy, that love is all that ultimately matters in a world gone to hell – here, the love between the father and the son, the love between the son and the world. Such a love leads a father to his self-sacrifice, and a son fully to incarnate divinity in finite relations and relativity (“He tried to talk to God but the best was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. The woman said that was alright. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time” [241].)

This is no simple redemption of the darkness, and thus no promise of a new day that is better than the last one, for this day we are living is the last one. There is not even so much as a messianic recapitulation, in the vein expressed so well by Giorgio Agamben. The redemption here, rather, is completely, and thus in all of its complexity, of the darkness – the darkness redeemed as darkness by darkness. In this darkness that is finally death, for McCarthy, is only the most honest way to understand life; is the only honest way to live.

Such is the mystery of it all: a mystery which encapsulates, and through which unfolds, the fullness of life as the violence and horror of killing, as well as the joy of loving, the other. Hence, McCarthy ends his novel:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins whimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. 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)

4 thoughts on “Reflections on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

  1. Nomadic apocalypticism verses nomadic hedonism (On the Road). Why is it that apocalyptic stories often incorporate this element? Do you think there is something implicit within the death of God that opens to this kind of travelling narrative? Why is it that I can’t think of any apocalyptic stories that take place in one place? Well, I do remember a story I read in Jr High about all the adults dying and the kids took over the school and rebuilt society, but that’s more like an apocalypse deferred.

  2. That’s a good question. I wonder if the travel narrative has just become the America mode for the bildungsroman — and, as America seems to trade in apocalpyse, what for the “city on the hill” mentality that endures today — the link has become all the more natural.

  3. I can think of one apocalypse where the protagonist spends the entire novel in a missile silo: Level 7. Not anyone’s idea of great literature, tho.

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