McCarthy's end of the world

The master of entropy shows what could happen if we go on

Review Novel


Nuclear holocaust has reduced the world to ash and rubble. A man and his son, "each the other's world entire," trek without purpose down a road to nowhere in death-defying starvation. Along the way, they pass renegades barbecuing their infants. There is no plot to Cormac McCarthy's harrowing, brilliant new novel, a worthy successor to his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, because human history has drawn to a close.

The Road at times resembles Robinson Crusoe. The man reveals a profusion of ingenuity, siphoning drops of gasoline, digging deep into the burrows of an abandoned survival shelter for precious stores of food, even suturing his own deep, bloody wound inflicted by a sniper.

The Road is no less a heart-wrenching paean to fatherhood. The man nurtures the boy, teaches him and protects him, and sacrifices his own longing for death so that his son might survive. The world is "barren, silent, godless," and "largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes." The man instructs his son that "good guys" yet remain, and the novel's ending brings that truth home.

Cormac McCarthy is the great poet of entropy: unsentimental and, as ever, violent in the cautionary prose through which he holds up the mirror of our likely future should the politics of permanent war and government-endorsed torture persist without effective opposition, as it shows every indication of doing.

Now, at the nameless moment of this novel's action, all the fish are dead, no birds sing and the ground has turned to dead ash, incapable of producing life's sustenance. "Nothing living anywhere" becomes the mantra of this chilling tale. There are no chapter breaks because these would connote progress, a way out when this author sees none in sight.

In The Road, McCarthy has produced the first major post-9/11 novel. He has revealed himself not to be writing an allegory, an abstract story about the consequences of human evil, but a political novel. Ignoring how this holocaust happened - it doesn't matter - he reveals the likely result of the history we are living, and the politics of accepting passively the premises of a warrior government out of control.

The horrific images of suffering for which McCarthy has long been known have now been enlisted in the service of defiance. A man is "like an animal inside a skull looking out the eyeholes." Cannibals leave behind "a pool of guts." A frieze of human heads features "spare and ratty hair." But McCarthy's trademark gory, heart-stopping images, one arriving fast in the wake of the last, are not present to serve an abstract tale of good and evil. Rather, they are here to propose that we would do well to live otherwise.

In this Swiftian nightmare, horror proposes its reverse, protecting the soon-to-be "vanished world" as the father cares tenderly for his son. He is so loving that he cannot tell stories of "the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well," and so he can no longer tell stories at all. Stories are lies, the son figures out.

McCarthy even revisits some of his old tropes. The wise old man stock figure of earlier McCarthy novels like The Crossing here is simply a ragged old man talking nonsense. He hopes all those surviving will die, too, so that death will have nothing more to do. When the man suggests that the boy believes in God, this old man says, "He'll get over it," the cliche evaporating before the otherwise original language that has made McCarthy a master fiction writer.

There are few surprises in The Road because McCarthy is unrelenting in his vision, as he has always been. The man coughs blood and you know what that means. Culture has given way to barbarism and is not likely to return. Trust is a luxury. Morality means nothing when "there is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground." If there is no one watching, as Dostoevsky put it, everything is permitted. It takes a Cormac McCarthy to visualize exactly what that everything entails.

Character development is conveyed through dialogue. The son grows wiser, more reticent, more wary. Life's progress has not quite died and so is all the more touching when the sea has become "one vast salt sepulchre" with "the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore." With images of horror affixed in the boy's consciousness, McCarthy ponders how his character can retain his faith in remaining alive.

Near the end, father and son reach their goal, the coast, only to face a gray ocean, the color blue having vanished: "Cold. Desolate. Birdless."

The final moments between father and son brought this reader to tears. "Do everything the way we did it," the father says, passing on a human legacy. His son is to "carry the fire" inside him, and the fire expresses all the value of which the species was ever capable. "If I'm not here you can still talk to me," he says. This invocation is at once equal to his son talking to God.

What has befallen this planet is unforgivable by God. Survival is affixed to goodness, generosity, unselfishness and compassion, not the theme you might expect from Cormac McCarthy but, here, transcendent.

Joan Mellen's most recent book is "A Farewell To Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination and The Case That Should Have Changed History." She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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