The Road

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The Road is a new book by Cormac McCarthy. Let's start with an understanding. This is the only Cormac McCarthy book I've been able to make it through. People talk about his stirring and poetic prose, and I see in it a kind of warped and arrogant Hemingway. I am put-off by his eccentric use of superposed punctuation (he refuses either quotation marks or apostrophes for the most part--although he does use them when contracting a personal pronoun and a verb--never when contracting a verb and a negative). I'm disinclined to force myself through long passages of dialogue that do not have any markers indicating speaker so that one must read them time and time and time again to make sense of them. This doesn't charm, nor is it innovative, or even really interesting. I have always interpreted it as the boorish imposition of an author who can't be bother with conventions because he thinks he stands above them. It's a childish form of rebellion.

Now that I've gotten through the truth in advertising preamble, we can get to the core. The Road is one of the most harrowing, profoundly moving, profoundly beautiful stories of the reality of being human that I've had privilege to read in many years. The prose contains all of those eccentricities I despise, and yes, they did occasionally make it very difficult to read; but the destination was worth the journey.

Don't get me wrong, while you can read it very fast, the journey is very, very difficult. The Road hasn't much of a plot. A nameless man and his nameless son are traveling south in late Autumn and early winter seeking the southern coast. Their journey is through a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland in which nothing grows, not trees, not grass, nothing. Marauding troops of cannibals patrol the roads capturing anyone unwary enough to be out and taking them away to by systematically hacked to pieces and eaten--a fate made more horrible by the fact that there is no refrigeration so the people must be kept alive to endure their fate and feed their captors.

This is the landscape of The Road. And what is most interesting about it is that the author doesn't even drop a hint of how this happened. It is utterly irrelevant to his point. And what is this point? That's a really good question. I won't claim that McCarthy is writing a Christian apologia, but there is an interpretation of this nameless man and nameless son that falls into a very Christian way of viewing things. Now, we must avoid the danger of allegory because this novel is far richer than the simple explanation I will offer. There are a great many things hidden in its depths, and I hope to go back and explore them once I have come out from under its spell. (I do have to say that I read this over the course of two days, reading late into the night one evening and finally setting the book aside. That night I had the most unsettling dreams of being part of the onset of this apocalyptic world.)

Here is one way I could read this novel. The road is about the saving power of love, of human love for one another which is a sign of divine love, and sometimes the only sign. The devastated wasteland is the world we wander through. For some it is stripped down to these basics--there are two kinds of people--"the good guys" who do not eat people, and those who do eat people. We night view the cannibals as people who have objectified the other. People are no longer people in their eyes. But they remain people in the eyes of the son of this man, a boy who witnesses many horrors, who prays before consuming food found in a deserted bunker,

from The Road
Cormac McCarthy
(p. 123)

Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldnt eat it no matter how hungry we were and we're sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you're safe in heaven with God.

The tenderness of this boy, who has every reason to abandon his humanity and to turn to serve himself is heartbreakingly beautiful, just as is the steadfast love and loyalty of his father.

The Road contains the desolate wasteland of life in which we are pounded down and pounded down and pounded down until nothing remains and it tests each person's humanity. You could read this as a story of a man nearing the end of life when everything is bleak and grey. All around are people who would eat him alive if it would further their cause, take everything and think nothing of it. And yet he has one person with him who keeps reminding him of the beauty of humanity. And the two of them are "each the other's world entire." And finally, all we can do is go as far as we can go and trust the ones we carry along to the hands of others and hope that they will continue along. And so this story goes.

The depth of the love and compassion expressed here are hard to express outside of the work itself. They stand in stark contrast to the world of the novel, and hence the necessity for this unexplained world, this bleakness without break--this eternal and abiding absence of hope except the hope the two have together because they are two and "each the other's world entire."

And do we want a Christian message?

from The Road
Cormac McCarthy
p. 155-156

There are other good guys. You said so.
So where are they?
They're hiding.
Who are they hiding from?
From each other.
Are there lots of them?
We dont know.
But some.
Some. Yes.
Is that true?
Yes. That's true.
But it might not be true.
I think it's true.
You dont believe me.
I believe you.
I always believe you.
I dont think so.
Yes I do. I have to.

Childlike trust because there is no other choice. But more than that, the first part reminds me of Casting Crown's hit, "If We Are the Body." As Christians we hide from one another. How many Christians do you know in your office who proclaim their Christianity? How often do I proclaim it outside of places I know it will be accepted? We are the good guys, and we're hiding from one another because we are afraid of those who would use us--those who would consume us without a second thought--and so our light is hidden under the bushel basket.

Again, I know nothing of the spirituality of Cormac McCarthy. I will not say that there is an overt Christian message meant to be read in this book. However, there is a strong whiff of the Calvinist about his worldscape and his view of the utter depravity of most of humankind. The elect are few, but they are always around, ready to step in as needed.

In the words of Ely the strange man they meet who wanders the Road and claims to be ninety years old,

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.

This Estragon and Vladmir dialogue pervades the book, but its rhythms and meanings sink in and you become aware of the hidden streams.

Simply, powerfully, idiosyncratically written--brutal and beautifully humane and loving I cannot recommend this book highly enough. However, be aware--it is very strong meat and very difficult going. It may trouble you for many days after you put it down. And that is precisely how I know it was worth having read it. (And perhaps someday I'll take the time to produce a review from this incoherent ramble--but for now, let this stand--the recommendation of one who cares very little for the style and the work of the author, but one who was for a few days at least transformed by his presence.)

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Do you think there are/will be post-apocalyptic literature in heaven. I hope not.

Dear Manonymous,

What an interesting and odd question. I rather doubt that there will be post-apocalyptic literature or any literature at all because there will be no leisure time because all time will be leisure time in the Lord. As much as I love literature, when I go and visit family I haven't seen in a long time I can't bear to pick up a book for fear of missing time with them. So I imagine it might be in Heaven.

However, to address another point that you didn't ask, while this book has the trappings of Post-Apocalyptic fiction, they are just that--a kind of window-dressing or setting that is merely necessary to get across the central points. If asked, I wouldn't group this with The Stand, On the Beach, or Alas Babylon in which the real point is survival after some disaster. While that happens in this novel, it isn't the point at all. The point here is love. That is the axle upon which the whole book moves and moves; and its movement haunts and lingers with the reader who embraces the experience.

Thanks for writing and giving me reason to clarify those points.



Please come over and link to this review at my Saturday Review of Books round-up of book reviews at Semicolon. I found your thoughts fascinating.

Intriguing. First you talk me out of reading the book and then you talk me into reading it.

Thanks for this review - I saw you in the Saturday Review of Books and I have to agree, I've never found Cormac McCarthy all that interesting. Maybe I'll give this one a try. Maybe.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 23, 2006 9:33 PM.

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