Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
The Road (Oprah's Book Club)
The Road (Oprah's Book Club)
Cormac McCarthy
Vintage, 2006
287 pp., 17.00

Buy Now

Phil Christman

A Tabernacle in the Dark

On the road with Cormac McCarthy.

Grant, for argument, that life is pointless—that purpose and moral order are mere projection, God just a big piece of embroidery. Still, there remains this odd human genius for projecting and embroidering. We call it "adaptive," and then blame it for making us ill-adapted. We call it "comforting," though it is most often felt as a burden, a sharp twinge, a weight of dignity. It sits out there, beyond all our tedious explanations, mysterious as Stonehenge. If you're a novelist, why not celebrate it?

This is the question that Cormac McCarthy's work has often raised for me. Clearly the man doesn't believe in God, and I'm not about to make him. But granting that for McCarthy there is nothing here beyond what's here, he has sometimes seemed insufficiently bedazzled by what's here; the rigor and uncompromising honesty of his vision have been, at times, indistinguishable from sadism and nihilism.

This tendency reached a peak of sorts with 1985's Blood Meridian, a blood-soaked revisionist Western set in 1840s Texas. Blood Meridian, regarded by many critics and fellow-novelists as McCarthy's masterpiece, suggests that wanton murder and self-destruction are definitive of humanity. Total depravity? You'd better believe it. Under the weight of this oppressive gloom, a kind of Calvinism minus God, even McCarthy's brilliant prose begins to sag, as when he writes of a mountain range that seems to be carved from "some other order whose true geology was not stone but fear." Blood Meridian was followed by the Border Trilogy, three novels that recast banal ("mythic") stories into an overstuffed ("Faulknerian") style that frequently devolves into mannered stuttering. The first two novels—which are likable enough and even moving, if you can ignore the affectations—serve as set-up for Cities of the Plain (1999), in which McCarthy broods on the end of the cowboy lifestyle and the misuse of the West as nuclear testing ground: America as Sodom and Gommorah.

The crowning annoyance in this phase of McCarthy's career was No Country for Old Men (2005), a juiced-up police-procedural in which a hardworking Texas cop hunts a vicious killer. The novel makes an interesting parallel with Child of God (1974), a grim early work in which a hardworking Tennessee cop, well, hunts a vicious killer. The difference is that in the earlier novel, the killer, Lester Ballard, was the protagonist of his story—a child of God, the title insisted, however much debased—and McCarthy's purpose in examining him was to see the way certain human traits persisted even under appalling derangement. No Country's villain, Anton Chigurh, leaves no such impression. He makes grandiose speeches before shooting people, like a minor Dennis Hopper villain reading from Job, but his inhuman, ghostly efficiency renders him less a character than a symbol of the wantonness of the drug economy. As for the police chief, he is not so much a person as a collection of homilies. Novels obsessed with abstractions tend to replace character with exempla. Perhaps this is one reason for McCarthy's somewhat awkward use of the police chief's right-wing monologues as the backbone for the novel: the main character, denied meaningful action, must express himself through talk. Meanwhile, McCarthy's loving focus on his villain's sadism, in a novel that more or less mocks the impotence of its other characters, raised the suspicion that he was acting in collusion, so to speak, with the universal death that (for him) forecloses the possibility of human significance.

But then a surprise. The Road, McCarthy's tenth novel, offers the ultimate logical extension of this schtick—and a way out of it. It is McCarthy's finest novel since Suttree (1979), and it also, not coincidentally, marks the return of the humanist McCarthy, whom we haven't seen since that novel. (The Border Trilogy, I would argue, was not so much humanist as sentimental.) Just as No Country used elements of a popular genre—the police-procedural—The Road offers us a deepening of the pop-apocalyptic vision of such '70s drive-in horror classics as Dawn of the Dead: scarred victims wander through a desolate landscape, near starvation, on the run from mindless cannibals. Like these films—and like Robinson Crusoe—the story uses the near-exhaustion of all resources to pose questions about what it is humans are, what we can and can't live without. Society is not in decline here; it has collapsed completely, freeing McCarthy to celebrate once again the compassion and humor and imagination with which people negotiate their doom.

A man and his son wander through an ash-blackened America, having somehow survived a nuclear attack that has wiped out civilization. They eat rarely and hurriedly, avoiding the gangs of looters who roam the countryside, raping and murdering and cannibalizing at will. McCarthy's style is spare and tight, rising occasionally to moments of grand sermonic poetry or, less often, to a bray; toward the beginning many of the sentences are fragments, as if to say: only this is left. The book takes a while to get into. The short paragraphs have a stop-and-start quality, exhausting themselves, like doomed engines turning over for the next-to-last time, just as the boy and his father are always eating the last of their rations. The characterization is at once simple and convincing; the boy, especially, has an occasional petulance about small points, a touching punctiliousness, that reminded me of my eldest nephew.

Throughout the book, the man (he is never named) seems to conduct a running inner argument with the boy's dead mother, whom we know through flashback. After delivering her baby, she decides not to go on:

Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They will rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You'd rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant. She sat there smoking a slender length of dried grapevine as if it were some rare cheroot. Holding it with a certain elegance, her other hand across her knees where she'd drawn them up. She watched him across the small flame. We used to talk about death, she said. We dont anymore. Why is that?
I dont know.
It's because it's here. There's nothing left to talk about.
I wouldnt leave you.
I dont care. It's meaningless … . You talk about taking a stand but there is no stand to take.

And, telling him she has no dreams and no hopes except "eternal nothingness," she kills herself. For the rest of the novel he worries that she was right—that it is all meaningless, and that his hope of eventually finding something to survive for—a hope he shares most of with the boy, sparing little for himself—is mere cowardice, a flinching away from the brute necessity of mercy-killing his son. He carries a gun with exactly one bullet, always worried that he should have used it already. As if to compensate, he tries to empty himself of any hope or desire; he tells himself that "the right dreams for a man in peril [are] dreams of peril," that the rest is loathsome escapism. But his son is not interested in survival on just any terms—he will not, for example, survive through cannibalism or theft, and he constantly shares their dwindling food supply with strangers. So for the boy's sake the father must perpetuate a narrative in which the two of them will not only survive, but in which they are "the good guys."

Human conscience and imagination, those linked capacities that allow us to perceive the field of meaning in which we operate, are unexpectedly and movingly celebrated here. McCarthy shears away everything, places his characters on the very outskirts of human existence, so that these very capacities stand out in all their grandeur, their resilience. "There were times," McCarthy writes at one point, "when he [the father] sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it was not about death. He wasn't sure what it was about but he thought that it was about beauty or about goodness." Human beings go down to the wire in this novel not as idiots who delude themselves into imagining they matter, but as magnificent beings saved and enlarged by their own chimera—if it is a chimera.

At one point the father says a quick incantation, and McCarthy writes, "This blessing is no less real for being shorn of its ground." This is the key insight of the novel. McCarthy seems to have wavered at times between allowing human goodness, sympathy, generosity, and imagination the magnificence on their own terms that they possess, and cheering on the universal extinction which, in his view, has shorn these things of their ground. In this novel he comes down firmly on the side of humanity. It is generosity and emotional courage on McCarthy's own part that allows him to envision such a future without abandoning his loyalty to the father and the son, and it is extraordinary imaginative power that allows him to make such an alien vision so devastatingly present and believable for the reader. All of this allows the novel to triumph over its occasional longeurs, and over McCarthy's occasional stylistic overreach (at one point he describes "raw cold daylight … gray as his heart," for Pete's sake). The Road has been called a depressing book, yet it's the truest compliment to the human spirit that I've read in a while.

And is the father's blessing, truly, shorn of its ground? Where McCarthy's earlier work uses God rhetorically, as a name for all the things the characters want to punish for not existing, God is virtually a character here, whether real or not. The father curses God often, in his mind (and it's tough to blame him), but he also invokes God frequently in his talks with his son, even saying that he's been assigned the task of father-protector "by God." As in Guillermo Del Toro's wonderful movie Pan's Labyrinth, it's open to question whether the myth the main child-character lives by (in this case, that God loves him and he is one of the "good guys") is denied or affirmed by what happens in the "real world" of the story.

Late in the novel, McCarthy describes the boy, strikingly, as "a tabernacle in the dark," and he alludes at several significant moments to the Genesis notion of breath, passing from God to humanity and down through generations. It is because of this pervasive presence-that-isn't-there that the novel, in my view, earns its somewhat surprising ending, which has wrongly been called a case of deus ex machina. (Deus does not suddenly pop up at the end of the book, like a jack-in-the-box.) The Road may be intended as a denial that divinity is to be found anywhere except in the nobler capacities of humanity; to me, it was a powerful reminder that divinity can be inferred, as Calvin inferred it, first of all from the wonder and the beauty and the horror—the all-significant story—that we inhabit.

Phil Christman is a graduate student in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina.

Most ReadMost Shared