Another masterpiece from Cormac McCarthy

The road to hell

Cormac McCarthy’s vision of a post-apocalyptic America in The Road is terrifying, but also beautiful and tender, says Alan Warner.

Saturday, November 4, 2006
The Guardian

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
256pp, Picador, £16.99

Shorn of history and context, Cormac McCarthy’s other nine novels could be cast as rungs, with The Road as a pinnacle. This is a very great novel, but one that needs a context in both the past and in so-called post-9/11 America.

We can divide the contemporary American novel into two traditions, or two social classes. The Tough Guy tradition comes up from Fenimore Cooper, with a touch of Poe, through Melville, Faulkner and Hemingway. The Savant tradition comes from Hawthorne, especially through Henry James, Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald. You could argue that the latter is liberal, east coast/New York, while the Tough Guys are gothic, reactionary, nihilistic, openly religious, southern or fundamentally rural.

The Savants’ blood line (curiously unrepresentative of Americans generally) has gained undoubted ascendancy in the literary firmament of the US. Upper middle class, urban and cosmopolitan, they or their own species review themselves. The current Tough Guys are a murder of great, hopelessly masculine, undomesticated writers, whose critical reputations have been and still are today cruelly divergent, adrift and largely unrewarded compared to the contemporary Savant school. In literature as in American life, success must be total and contrasted “failure” fatally dispiriting.

But in both content and technical riches, the Tough Guys are the true legislators of tortured American souls. They could include novelists Thomas McGuane, William Gaddis, Barry Hannah, Leon Rooke, Harry Crews, Jim Harrison, Mark Richard, James Welch and Denis Johnson. Cormac McCarthy is granddaddy to them all. New York critics may prefer their perfidy to be ignored, comforting themselves with the superlatives for All the Pretty Horses, but we should remember that the history of Cormac McCarthy and his achievement is not an American dream but near on 30 years of neglect for a writer who, since The Orchard Keeper in 1965, produced only masterworks in elegant succession. Now he has given us his great American nightmare.

The Road is a novel of transforming power and formal risk. Abandoning gruff but profound male camaraderie, McCarthy instead sounds the limits of imaginable love and despair between a diligent father and his timid young son, “each other’s world entire”. The initial experience of the novel is sobering and oppressive, its final effect is emotionally shattering.

America – and presumably the world – has suffered an apocalypse the nature of which is unclear and, faced with such loss, irrelevant. The centre of the world is sickened. Earthquakes shunt, fire storms smear a “cauterised terrain”, the ash-filled air requires slipshod veils to cover the mouth. Nature revolts. The ruined world is long plundered, with canned food and good shoes the ultimate aspiration. Almost all have plunged into complete Conradian savagery: murdering convoys of road agents, marauders and “bloodcults” plunder these wastes. Most have resorted to cannibalism. One passing brigade is fearfully glimpsed: “Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. The phalanx following carried spears or lances … and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.” Despite this soul desert, the end of God and ethics, the father still defines and endangers himself by trying to instil moral values in his son, by refusing to abandon all belief.

All of this is utterly convincing and physically chilling. The father is coughing blood, which forces him and his son, “in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep”, on to the treacherous road southward, towards a sea and – possibly – survivable, milder winters. They push their salvage in a shopping cart, wryly fitted with a motorcycle mirror to keep sentinel over that road behind. The father has a pistol, with two bullets only. He faces the nadir of human and parental existence; his wife, the boy’s mother, has already committed suicide. If caught, the multifarious reavers will obviously rape his son, then slaughter and eat them both. He plans to shoot his son – though he questions his ability to do so – if they are caught. Occasionally, between nightmares, the father seeks refuge in dangerously needy and exquisite recollections of our lost world.

They move south through nuclear grey winter, “like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world”, sleeping badly beneath filthy tarpaulin, setting hidden campfires, exploring ruined houses, scavenging shrivelled apples. We feel and pity their starving dereliction as, despite the profound challenge to the imaginative contemporary novelist, McCarthy completely achieves this physical and metaphysical hell for us. “The world shrinking down to a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true.”

Such a scenario allows McCarthy finally to foreground only the very basics of physical human survival and the intimate evocation of a destroyed landscape drawn with such precision and beauty. He makes us ache with nostalgia for restored normality. The Road also encapsulates the usual cold violence, the biblical tincture of male masochism, of wounds and rites of passage. His central character can adopt a universal belligerence and misanthropy. In this damnation, rightly so, everyone, finally, is the enemy. He tells his son: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed by God to do that … We are the good guys.” The other uncomfortable, tellingly national moment comes when the father salvages perhaps the last can of Coke in the world. This is truly an American apocalypse.

The vulnerable cultural references for this daring scenario obviously come from science fiction. But what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy’s late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description. As has been said before, McCarthy is worthy of his biblical themes, and with some deeply nuanced paragraphs retriggering verbs and nouns that are surprising and delightful to the ear, Shakespeare is evoked. The way McCarthy sails close to the prose of late Beckett is also remarkable; the novel proceeds in Beckett-like, varied paragraphs. They are unlikely relatives, these two artists in old age, cornered by bleak experience and the rich limits of an English pulverised down through despair to a pleasingly wry perfection. “He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms out-held for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old chronicle.”

Set piece after set piece, you will read on, absolutely convinced, thrilled, mesmerised with disgust and the fascinating novelty of it all: breathtakingly lucky escapes; a complete train, abandoned and alone on an embankment; a sudden liberating, joyous discovery or a cellar of incarcerated amputees being slowly eaten. And everywhere the mummified dead, “shrivelled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth”.

All the modern novel can do is done here. After the great historical fictions of the American west, Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, The Road is no artistic pinnacle for McCarthy but instead a masterly reclamation of those midnight-black, gothic worlds of Outer Dark (1968) and the similarly terrifying but beautiful Child of God (1973). How will this vital novel be positioned in today’s America by Savants, Tough Guys or worse? Could its nightmare vistas reinforce those in the US who are determined to manipulate its people into believing that terror came into being only in 2001? This text, in its fragility, exists uneasily within such ill times. It’s perverse that the scorched earth which The Road depicts often brings to mind those real apocalypses of southern Iraq beneath black oil smoke, or New Orleans – vistas not unconnected with the contemporary American regime.

One night, when the father thinks that he and his son will starve to death, he weeps, not about the obvious but about beauty and goodness, “things he’d no longer any way to think about”. Camus wrote that the world is ugly and cruel, but it is only by adding to that ugliness and cruelty that we sin most gravely. The Road affirms belief in the tender pricelessness of the here and now. In creating an exquisite nightmare, it does not add to the cruelty and ugliness of our times; it warns us now how much we have to lose. It makes the novels of the contemporary Savants seem infantile and horribly over-rated. Beauty and goodness are here aplenty and we should think about them. While we can.

• Alan Warner’s latest novel is The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven (Cape)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Cormac McCarthy’s venomous fiction

Discover more from { feuilleton }

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading