A White-Line Nightmare, After the End of the World

It looks like Cormac McCarthy is wasting away. Once he was prolix, stuffing big fat novels with long, trailing sequences of curious, chewy words. The prose was rich, the thick paragraphs daunting. He was compared to Faulkner, to Melville. Try reading aloud selected passages from his baroque masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985), and you’ll soon find yourself drawing deep breaths to carry you from one hair-raising clause to another in a marathon rush to reach the end of some astonishing far-flung sentence.

Those days are gone. Mr. McCarthy’s new novel, a bleak and mesmerizing tour of a radically depleted world, calls to mind Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: existence pared down to a road and a dead tree and two anguished creatures who can’t go on but must. The Road is post-apocalyptic; no other word will do to describe a novel in which a man and his young son trudge along for months and the only living flora or fauna they encounter are “the bad guys”—roving bands of cannibals sprung from a Mad Max nightmare. And yet that word—post-apocalyptic—seems too long, too abundantly syllabled to fit the exhausted landscape Mr. McCarthy has imagined.

These, by dint of relentless repetition, are the words you’ll remember from The Road: “cold,” “dark,” “ash,” “gray” and “dead.” The two inescapable lines of dialogue are the panicked imperative, “Come on. We have to go” (that’s the father), and the heartbreaking response, “Okay” (that’s the son). Again, by dint of repetition, you’ll remember them stumbling wearily along the road, running when they have to, hiding, always watching, always scared.

Where are they going? South, to the coast. They’ve survived—barely—by scavenging what earlier scavengers have missed. The father is coughing up blood. The boy is pitifully thin. It they don’t starve and if they don’t die of the cold and if they aren’t killed and eaten by the bad guys, it seems obvious that the man will die anyway and the boy, left on his own, will die too.

How does Cormac McCarthy manage to fascinate us with such a barren prospect? Part of it, I suppose, is the thrill of the worst-case scenario, the unthinkable thought that we are going to destroy the planet, kill off Mother Nature with a doomsday device that leaves behind only cold, dark and ash. There’s also the Swiss Family Robinson fun of scavenging (late in the novel, the man plunders a dismasted yacht that’s run aground 100 yards off the “vast salt sepulcher” of a desolate beach)—but anyone who reads The Road for fun should have his head examined.

The best hook is the little boy, who’s instinctively, incorruptibly good, even in the midst of excruciating hardship and incessant menace. The boy is tender and admiring with his “Papa,” and the father, in turn, worships his son: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” Filial love, paternal love—if these can endure, there’s surely a tiny ray of hope for the few pathetic survivors of whatever holocaust has decimated the globe. The boy asks, “Are we still the good guys?” His father, who’s been telling him all along that they’re “carrying the fire,” assures him that they are indeed the good guys—even if they sometimes have to kill bad guys to survive. The boy, bless him, is the man’s moral compass, and he lays down the essential, unbreakable taboo: “We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?”

What kept me reading was neither the boy’s precious goodness nor the dark allure of total annihilation—it was Mr. McCarthy’s writing, the sheer beauty of the language. He’s put himself on a strict diet, which means many, many paragraphs of dingy misery like this:

“They went on …. The only thing that moved in the streets was the blowing ash. They crossed the high concrete bridge over the river. A dock below. Small pleasureboats half sunken in the gray water. Tall stacks downriver dim in the soot.”

No commas, few verbs, more ash, more gray: “The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion.” Against this monochrome monotony, ghoulish sights stand out with an intensity that shocks the eye:

“The mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth. They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.”

If a writer is bold enough to describe “ligaments dried to tug,” he’s earned the right to flourishes like “discalced to a man.” (Other words that had me rifling through the dictionary: “gryke,” “rachitic,” “siwash,” “loess.”)

In moments of drama, the cold and the gray of the background are promoted to the foreground and do their job along with the more rarefied vocabulary. Here the father recalls coming face to face with a bad guy:

“This was the first human being other than the boy he’d spoken to in more than a year. My brother at last. The reptilian calculations in those cold and shifting eyes. The gray and rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh.”

When the pre-apocalyptic world is evoked, the contrast is stunning:

“In that long ago somewhere very near this place he’d watched a falcon fall down the blue wall of a mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn air.”

The beauty of the writing is nearly spoiled for me by the broad hints of religious allegory. God has vanished from this ruined world: The “temporal winds” blow, as do the “secular winds”—and when it snows, the man catches a single flake in his hand and watches it “expire like the last host of christendom.” He’s sure that there are “no godspoke men” on the road. But what about his boy? Isn’t the boy “the word of God” incarnate?

When the father washes the son’s hair, it’s “like some ancient anointing.” The hair is pale and tangled: “Golden chalice, good to house a god.” There’s more of this winking and nudging, and it all leads to the hokiest line of the book, which comes at a moment of fraught moral significance, when the boy is once again pushing his father to do the less prudent, more virtuous thing. “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” says the father, to which the son replies, “Yes I am.” And then, for emphasis, this loaded declaration: “I am the one.” We already know that he’s “carrying the fire”; now we understand that it’s the divine spark.

Why do I object when I find that God and the possibility of redemption have been smuggled into this blasted landscape? Because it seems to me perfectly plausible that if we do destroy the planet, it will be because of religious faith and not in spite of it.

Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer. A White-Line Nightmare,  After the End of the World