Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Road

People tell me that I have a pretty dark and pessimistic outlook on life. I can’t much argue with them because I do. That said then, it’s really something when I say that Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, The Road, is so bleak and grim that it brought even me down. It’s well over two hundred pages of unrelieved and savage desperation. In the last couple of pages, he gives us a faint glimmer of hope for future generations, but that’s it, the ever so brief flaring of a match’s flame in universal darkness.

The Road is the story of a man and his son, who is about ten years old. (I may be a little off on that age, and I don’t have the book at hand. Since it is in high demand, I returned it to the library before writing this entry.) They are alive in a post-apocalyptic America and they are making their way south where they hope the weather will be warmer. The cause of the apocalypse is not specified, though the landscape seems to be universally scorched and devastated. There is little food to be found anywhere, so the man and boy survive on the caches of canned goods that they manage to scavenge from while on their journey. They both realize that when they can no longer find these caches they are dead.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, such as it as, should any of you want to read the book, but I will say this. There isn’t much of a plot. The man and the boy just seem to move one from one incident to another. There’s no true sense of a narrative in the commonly understood sense of the term. This is a frequent criticism of much of McCarthy’s work and it’s certainly true here, so at the conclusion I found myself asking what McCarthy wanted me to walk away with. He just seemed to be saying that life in this world is tantamount to life in hell, though there is a small chance that there may be something in it for our children.

McCarthy is a social conservative, and now that he is an old man, he has become one of those social conservatives who believes that it’s all going to hell in a hand basket because people have abandoned their traditional values. That was the message of his previous novel, No Country For Old Men, and it is even more so the message in this one. The man and his son identify themselves as the good people, and they are the repository of traditional values. The man acknowledges to his son that there are other good people to be found somewhere, though the only ones these two seem to encounter are the bad ones. And when he says bad, he means bad, over-the-top bad. To show you just how horrible it’s gotten to be with these common run of people, cannibalism seems to be endemic among them. Some of them even keep people like domestic animals for the purpose of eating them, and when one of their number dies, they have no qualms about butchering them and consuming the meat.

The reviewer in the New York Times raved over The Road, but I can’t agree with his opinion. This is not one of McCarthy’s better works. The King James’ Old Testament diction gets tiresome, and the fictional journey becomes too much of an ordeal. The reason is that there is no real struggle with the forces of evil because they are so overwhelming that it is just a matter of holding out against them for as long as possible before giving up the ghost. What small hope he offers at the end seems contrived, and not at all genuine. It’s almost as if his publisher admonished him for the unrelieved desperation, and asked that he give the reader some small hope of redemption at the end.


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