by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy's Journey Through Postapocalyptic America
A review by Tom Chiarella
The cinematic and literary versions of the postapocalyptic world always include hardy bands of survivors who somehow manage to stumble upon remarkable stores of weapons, food, and useful cultural toys. Sure, vampires or zombies or marauding motorcyclists prowl the landscape, but their presence always seems a small price to pay, a sort of puzzle for the multiracial, gender-balanced survivors to deal with before they set up the groundwork for the new world.
Enter Cormac McCarthy, the elemental prose stylist of our time, with his new novel, The Road, a book so intensely unlike his previous work that you might be left wondering if this really is the same author of those hard-bitten west-Texas narratives Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses. It draws, in crisp little passages about the length of your thumb, the end of the world as the story of a father and son wheeling a shopping cart along a road through the remains of a cold, ashy, picked-over nation that must have been ours once. Where are they? There's no way to know. The names of cities have been forgotten. What has happened?
Choose your poison. There are memories of cholera outbreaks, evidence of firestorms. Small packs of cannibals tramp the road behind wagons drawn by slaves. Nothing grows. There are few places that have not been rummaged, scavenged, and stripped. At one point, the man -- this father -- squats in a barn and scrapes from the floor the dried seeds left by an ancient haystack, puts them in his mouth, and chews. It actually gives the reader some hope.
It's an adventure, believe it or not -- the sort of book that, if only for the relentless clarity of the writing, the lucid descriptions of the grasses, the mud, the thorns, and the very arc of the road that cuts through all that, presents a clear and episodic progress from one small terror to the next. Forget comfort and possession. Postapocalypse or not, it's classic McCarthy. No one seeks or finds. The father and son move because everyone moves. Theirs is a world of ghosts, vapors, gods. They evade rather than progress. And they are plenty scared the whole way.
This father and son remain, at their very core, no less than that: a father and a son. Against the conspiracies of indifference that surround them, the father struggles for answers, for solutions, to keep them safe, to help the boy see the world that once was, while the boy, terrified to the brink of stupor, asks the questions of a child raised in a world that no one has ever known before. What is a train, after all, to a boy who has never seen one move? What is a pear? Why did they even make roads if there is nowhere to go?
The answers come from the father. He knows them. He's lived in our world, after all. But you shouldn't read this book for the metaphoric possibilities of change in the life of mankind. You know all that crap already. Yeah, yeah, we're headed for doom. You should read this book because it is exactly what a book about our future ought to be: the knife wound of our inconvenient truths, laid bare in a world that will just plain scare the piss out of you on a windy night.
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