Friday, August 26, 2011

Douglas Messerli |"The Ultimate Road Trip" (on McCarthy's The Road)

by Douglas Messerli

Cormac McCarthy The Road (New York: Knopf, 2006)

The other day at a brunch, I happened to mention that I had just completed perhaps the bleakest book I’d ever read. Two of the other diners quickly chimed in, “I know exactly which book you mean!” And for several moments we discussed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, careful to steer our conversation away from the most horrific of the book’s descriptions, while simultaneously recommending it to all except the faint of heart. The same thing had happened to me earlier that morning in a telephone conversation with another friend, Martha Ronk.

At one time in American culture such synchronicity of reading might not have been worth mentioning. I still recall in 1960 when everyone seemed to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird; my mother, generally a reader of the literary guild titles—the pop fiction of the day—even held a meeting of a reading group in her home to discuss the book. But in today’s world of a superabundance of new book publications, it is rare—particularly among my well-read and literary friends, many of whom teach and, accordingly, spend a great deal of time reading and rereading classics—to find any shared reading experiences among new works of fiction or poetry. We may share with each other our enthusiasm for new movies, but when it comes to fiction we often speak of writers like Beckett or Borges or….numerous other established—and often dead—writers.

As a publisher, of course, I am always reading new works, and I attempt to share those with as many of my friends as I can, but the daily demands upon their time preclude any immediate reaction. I sometimes receive their responses to books I published years after my initial enthusiasm.

Accordingly, I was quite delighted to find common ground, to have read a new literary work which I could immediately share. Given the dark subject matter of McCarthy’s novel, it might have been predicted. Many of us feel, while recognizing the greater horrors of both World Wars, the Korean War and Viet Nam, nonetheless, that we are living in the darkest of times, as we face our own ongoing war abroad—in which young soldiers and often innocent Iraqi citizens are daily beheaded and bombed—and the potential development of nuclear bombs by nations that seem to have paranoid perspectives of the rest of the world, while recognizing in our own country a frightening constriction and loss of human rights and individual freedoms for which generations of Americans have struggled throughout the last century.

McCarthy’s powerful fiction is not directly about any of these issues. As the narrator makes clear, however, in the post-apocalyptic world we witness in this book, the cry of any Isaiah in the wilderness, indeed the doom sayings of all previous prophets have become reality. Accordingly, McCarthy proves all of our fears—those from the left, middle and right—to be justified.

We are never told what happened to create this ash-covered landscape in which all living matter—with the exception of a few straggling and struggling human beings—has been destroyed. All we know is that at 1:17 all the clocks stopped, “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” Trying the light switch the hero finds the power already gone, “a dull rose glow in the windowglass.” Is it a nuclear explosion, a series of nuclear bombs, or a huge meteor crashing into Earth, which might explain the ever darkening sky years later, as the father and son search for warmer climes? Does it matter? The world as we know it (as the characters knew it) has been destroyed.*

From the beginning, the central character of this book shows himself to be a survivor: soon after the electricity goes off, his wife asks, “Why are you taking a bath?” His answer, “I’m not,” speaks volumes, for suddenly we know that he has had enough foresight to give them several days’ drinking water. Soon there will be no more water, and, eventually, no food.

Before going any further in this review, following the lead of today’s newscasters, I should perhaps warn the reader that what I am about to describe is going to be unpleasant; moreover, for those who love plot, I will detract from that pleasure by sharing the story. Frankly, I find the reading experience itself so different from the description of a fiction that such revelations seldom bother me. But I know there are many who prefer to journey through fiction and film in virgin territory; those readers should put down my essay at this juncture.

McCarthy’s fiction, however, is not really about its story. For the plot is as simple as it can be: years after the original explosion, millions of individuals have died, some, as the central character’s wife, by suicide, most others presumably by starvation and illnesses such as cholera, pneumonia, rickets—all those horrific diseases which would inevitably follow upon such a holocaust. The few who live are not only survivors, but, in most cases, humans in name only, beings who have become animals, many of them existing only through cannibalism. The father and son at the center of this book are on a seemingly endless journey to move south in search of a warmer climate, but also out of the necessity to rummage for any scraps of canned or bottled food that might not have already been looted. Accordingly, they have no choice but to "hit the road.” Unlike Sal’s joyfully pagan journey in Kerouac’s On the Road or even Johnny’s pleasure in just “going” in The Wild One, the father and son of The Road embark upon a kind of road trip, the ultimate road trip, growing out of desperation. While it may be safer to hide away, without food and with only two bullets left in their gun, this father and son have no choice but to move on; “to go” and “to discover” have no longer any place in their vocabulary.

Certainly, there are discoveries to be made—of the most horrific kind. It is through the young boy that we most clearly see just what has been lost of humanity and the horrors any survivor must face. The father describes himself and his son as the “bearers of light,” as “the good guys.” And, at first, we recognize the rightness and necessity for such self-adulation. Around them are people who, as the wife and mother had observed before her death, would first rape the boy and then eat him. Recognizing this, the boy is nonetheless appalled by the fact that when they encounter another boy his age, there is nothing they can do to help; they cannot, as he would wish, take him with them; he may be one of them, and besides, they haven’t food to share.

Although they often suffer from near starvation, they also occasionally have the good fortune to discover hidden troves of canned goods (one in a hidden bunker clearly constructed by a survivalist-thinking family); but even with their newfound supplies, the father will not/cannot allow them to make contact with others they encounter along the road. It is too dangerous, as the most terrifying scene in the novel reveals. In a beautifully furnished house they discover a locked cellar wherein, when they break the padlock, they discover maimed but living humans, who are obviously being cut up and eaten by the tenants night after night. What might have been a black-comic moment in the hands of a postmodern writer like Steve Katz, presents itself as a grim nightmare in the hands of a realist such as McCarthy. I admit I did not sleep easy while reading this book.

After their small store of goods is stolen and they track down the thief, the father forces him to undress in retaliation for his act. The boy, in turn, begins to understand that, despite their representation of themselves as “good,” they necessarily are agents, in their struggle for survival, of evil.

They made a dry camp with no fire. He sorted out cans for their
supper and warmed them over the gas burner and they ate and the
boy said nothing. The man tried to see his face in the blue light
from the burner. I wasn’t gong to kill him, he said. But the boy
didn’t answer. They rolled themselves in the blankets and lay there
in the dark. He thought he could hear the sea but perhaps it was just
the wind. He could tell by his breathing that they boy was awake and
after a while the boy said: But we did kill him.

It is this gradual recognition of their own involvement with events that gives the greatest moral dimension to The Road.

Yet, we also recognize that the father has no other choices; through his selfishly determined actions he expresses such a deep love of his son—a love that must be recognized also as sexual (body to body contact is necessary as an altruistic protection from the elements as well as a physical expression of the father-son love)—that it encompasses McCarthy’s entire picaresque, explaining the central character’s mad determination to stay alive and move on. Without this love, the father would long ago have died or, at the very least, become something akin to the old prophet they meet along the way, a blind Oedipus-like figure who survives only because he presents himself as worthless of any human contact. Appropriately, he is the only one with whom the boy convinces his father to share their food.

The father’s determined survival, however, also reveals the great flaw of McCarthy’s The Road—and perhaps his other fictions as well. For however much we might admire this “carrier of the fire,” he is, like the figures from other fantastically epic adventures such as Lord of the Rings, not an entirely credible human being. And we are reminded in his actions that McCarthy is still writing a kind of Western, with all its heroic possibilities. I know that I, who cannot shoot a gun, who would be unable to light a campfire from flint, who would be unable to determine even what tools I needed to survive the ordeals this man and his son encounter, would have long before died. Most of us—not of the survivalist ilk—would never have had a chance.

Oddly enough, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic Western involves very few weapons. As one of my brunch companions, film writer Chris Hauty, mentioned, he didn’t find the book entirely believable on that account. In reality, he argued, everyone who was still living would have had guns. A quick visit to several sites on the internet revealed, for example, that it is estimated that there are enough guns in the US for every man, woman, and child. If such a holocaust were to occur—presuming that individuals would also loot weapons from gun stores and police stations throughout the country, adding immense quantities of arms to their cache—most armed Americans, particularly the survivalists, would have killed one another; those who remained would be so thoroughly armed that it is doubtful that a father and son, with only two bullets in their gun, would have been able to endure the trip.

Even heroes have to die, moreover, and with the death of the boy’s father, his son is released to embrace human encounters his father had previously denied him. In a world where women bear children only to roast them upon the spit soon thereafter we realize that the boy can never be certain in his trust.

Fortunately, it appears his first such encounter is with a family of “bearers of the fire,” of enlightened beings who will bring him from the road into the arms of a survivalist and, evidently, religious community. But as readers of this book, we are left with haunting questions, questions which the boy must continue to ask if human morality is to be sustained. How have they survived, this group of survivors? How will they continue to survive? Will they remain “good guys?” Can he?

Los Angeles, November 13, 2006
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2008).

*Actually I think it very much does matter. If the world has been destroyed by natural forces, the near-extinction of the human race—the novel even positing the possibility of its total extinction—is simply a matter of fate, and, in that sense, the father and son’s desperate struggle to hold on to any moral values is quite insignificant within the context of the forces of the cosmos. That does not mean the values have no meaning for the individuals still struggling to survive, but simply that they would ultimately no longer mean anything. Can we not admit that with the death of all human beings, God (and whatever values the concept of God encompasses) no longer exists, or, at least, no longer has any significance?

If, however, this apocalypse has been created by human beings, then any remnant of human guilt and retribution expressed in the love and hope of this intrepid couple is crucial—particularly if the species were incredibly to survive. Without survival, obviously, it again makes no difference, but—as Derrida might have argued—to the living that is the difference. To those who eat flesh and those who don’t, for the carriers of the light as opposed to the forces of the dark, this is no slight semantic slip of tongue, but an existential chasm of belief and act.

Westchester, November 14, 2006

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