Sunday, November 22, 2015

They Carry the Fire Within

The RoadThe Road 
by Cormac McCarthy

"The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

- from W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Seldom am I so moved by the writing and content of a book as I was in my recent rereading of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I have previously read his Border Trilogy and particularly enjoyed the initial volume, All the Pretty Horses.  More recently I read Blood Meridian (I will comment about that novel at length in the near future). The Road, published in 2006, is a a post-apocalyptic tale of a journey taken by a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unnamed cataclysmic event that destroyed all civilization and, apparently, almost all life on earth.

With a terse style the story has an immediacy that is apparent from the first page. 
"Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." (p 3)
The reader soon finds that gray is the primary color of almost everything in this world while the dreams of the Father are filled with images that remind you of the beast in Yeats' famous poem quoted above. The father and his son are journeying together, some years after the cataclysm. The death of his wife is told in a flashback that narrates how, overwhelmed by the desperate and apparently hopeless situation, she commits suicide some time before the story begins; the rationality and calmness of her act being her last "great gift" to the man and the boy. Now, faced with the realization that they will not survive another winter in their current location, they are headed east and south, through a desolate American landscape along a vacant highway, towards the sea, sustained only by the vague hope of finding warmth and more "good people" like them, and carrying with them only what is on their backs and what will fit into a damaged supermarket cart. Their bare and difficult days are marked by meditations that underscore their plight.

"The frailty of everything is 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." (p 24)

The details of their world, provided in small bits of narrative build to make a horrifying picture of desolation. Seldom have I read of a dystopia so bleak and foreboding. Nearly all of the few human survivors are cannibalistic tribalists or nomads, scavenging the detritus of city and country alike for human flesh, though that too is almost entirely depleted. It becomes clear that the father is dying, yet he struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure, and starvation, as well as from what he sees as the boy's innocently well-meaning, but dangerous desire to help wanderers they meet. Through much of the story, the pistol they carry, meant for protection or suicide if necessary, has only one round. The boy has been told to use it on himself if capture is imminent, to spare himself the horror of death at the hands of the cannibals.

In the face of these obstacles, the man and the boy have only each other (they are "each the other's world entire"). The man maintains the pretense, and the boy holds on to the real faith, that there is a core of ethics left somewhere in humanity. They repeatedly assure one another that they are "the good guys," who are "carrying the fire." One question that I had and which grew as I read more of the narrative was: what is the meaning of good in the world they inhabited? It was good when they found some meat or when they made it to another day - simple existence takes on new meaning in this context. The humanity of the son is kept in check by his father for fear of the danger that seems to exist everywhere. Yet there are moments when the boy keeps his father honest, as when the father tries to give the boy all of the cocoa they have to drink rather than splitting it between them.

"You promised not to do that, the boy said.
You know what, Papa.
He poured the hot water back in the pan and took the boy's cup and poured some of the cocoa into his own and then handed it back.
I have to watch you all the time, the boy said.
I know.
If you break the little promises you'll break the big ones. That's what you said.
I know. But I wont." (p 34)

The horror is both devastating and haunting. It arises from the discovery of death while they gradual decline in their ability to continue. The darkness of their journey is lightened somewhat by the ending and that, without discussing specifics, seems to me to be an important suggestion that there may be some hope for the next generation - the boy's future seems to hold some promise even in the face of the bleak territory that he traversed with his father.

In its way the book is at first unsettling, but if you continue to meditate on the events and relationships therein it becomes challenging and thought-provoking. The story of survival becomes a parable about the meaning of life. There is hope as the relationship between Papa and his boy helps each retain the will to live from day to day.

"No list of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you." (p 54)

There continues the innocence of the boy and you wonder: do we lose innocence or just grow out of it? The rhythm of the prose is often poetic, yet there is a balance between metaphysical thoughts and the practical details of finding food and keeping warm. The dreams (there are only a handful of them) of the father are endlessly fascinating. No more than when he comes down with a fever and dreams of a time past when he dreamt of a foreign country where he was studying among his books. This moment is quickly replaced by his current situation when he comes upon an abandoned library.

"Years later he'd stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He'd not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation." (p 187)

The story carries with it resonance with tales of journeys from Don Quixote to Robinson Crusoe. The brief dialogues between father and son are Beckett-like in their terseness, as is the grayness of the world. Yet they may have a future and it will depend upon their imagination. This tale of grayness and desolation may succumb to the imagination of a Father's son and the future he may yet be able to make for himself.

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R.T. said...

Bravo and Ditto! This one and _Blood Meridian_ will be McCarthy's enduring legacies.

Brian Joseph said...

Terrific post James.

I have only read Blood Meridian by McCarthy.

I have been shying away from this one as I fear that the bleakness may be a little too much for me these days. This would have been something that I would have already read when I was bit younger. I also have avoided the film for the same reasons.

James said...

R. T.,

Thanks for your kind words. These two are certainly classic texts.

James said...


This is certainly a bleak novel, filled as it is with grayness and the dark of the night and their world. While it is an emotional read I would encourage you to attempt it for it is also a beautiful novel. The movie is not bad but it does not do justice to the prose of Cormac McCarthy.