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Life (and Death) on the Road

December 6, 2006, 12:00 am
Cormac McCarthy describes one family's apocalypse.

Tesuque resident Cormac McCarthy's latest novel, The Road, is as rewarding as it is brutal. It also represents a major artistic achievement by managing to communicate so much on a restricted register-one that largely avoids things like proper names, character backgrounds and historical context, the very marrow of most novels.

The story focuses on an unnamed father and an unnamed son who journey south through an America that has ***image1***suffered an unspecified apocalyptic event-something like a nuclear holocaust. Their aim is to reach the ocean, though they can only guess at what awaits them there.

McCarthy's nine previous novels offset oppressive scenes of violence with sublime descriptions of the natural world. But here, nearly everything is already dead and gone, and everything else is dying-including the light of the sun, "like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." What's left is a cold and silent darkness, and the few who remain are exhausted, starving and terrified by the constant threat of being cannibalized by anyone they might encounter. These "lucky" survivors, therefore, are faced daily with the resounding question: Why go on?

Father and son struggle with this fundamental matter, and we learn of the wife and mother who answered the question for herself some time ago. The man encourages the boy not to lose heart by offering assurances that "we are the good guys" and "nothing bad is going to happen to us" because "we're carrying the fire." In turn, the young son struggles to understand himself in the light of these enigmatic claims and to determine their implications for the bleak world he inhabits.

The novel richly portrays the agony and the beauty of the bond between this parent and child, "each other's world entire." Yet this relationship is intensified and complicated by the father's extraordinary attribution of a sort of messianic quality to the boy. The man "knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke." Who, or what, then, is this child, and what is the nature of this desperate father's hope in him? Is this the stuff of a deep and abiding faith, or a form of madness born of frustration and loss?

Other important questions arise around the novel's end. The son asks the father about an earlier moment of their journey, when he spotted a young boy about his age looking at him from a house across the road. The son is unable to forget this boy and worries that he is lost and has no one to care for him. The son now asks his father, "Who will find him if he's lost? Who will find the little boy?" The father replies, "Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again." The remark is certainly moving. But is it an assertion that we can accept-that the novel has in some sense prepared the ground for-given the pervasive misery we have witnessed in this dying world, including the miserable and graphic fates of other children? It is up to the reader to decide whether such statements are worthy of the boy's faith or whether these assertions are sentimentalisms invented in the desperate attempt to ease another bitter night.

Furthermore, we can ask whether the ending tries to do for the reader what the father attempts to do for the son: Provide a kind of last-minute and perhaps dubious relief from a grimness that seems to go all the way down. Or perhaps what we are shown ***image2***here is an example of the "grace and beauty" that the father claims is always born "in grief and ashes."

It may be too much to say that the novel itself, then, is a meditation on the nature of hope and faith, but the novel certainly acts as a powerful catalyst for the reader to consider such things. The book's terse prose and frequent paragraph breaks prevent the reader from speeding ahead with the narrative too quickly, and instead spur us to reflect upon and assess the characters' motives to continue. Soon, we begin to ask ourselves: For what reasons, and for how long, would I be willing to go on living such an existence?

Great novels often help us to think more clearly about our lives and our loves, our time and how we spend it. They allow us to examine our values and our commitments, and this work can be difficult, even unsettling. This is why novels like The Road can be so uncomfortable and yet so critical for us to read. For presenting us with the opportunity to reckon with these matters of life and death, we can be grateful to Mr. McCarthy, our good neighbor up the road.


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