Thursday, June 28, 2007

Current Reading: The Road, By Cormac McCarthy

I just read this book, which Lord Mom gave me for Father's Day. Whoo. It's a millenial achievement, and it's not comforting. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and I almost picked it up to read it for a second time tonight. What it conveys, in a Hemingway style stripped down of all time and names, is disquietingly close to a near vision of what could happen to our world, a combination of a long dark time wrought by both nuclear winter and climate change. The animals, the plants, and the oceans are all killed. The sun doesn't shine through. It's Kerouac's On The Road without the enlightenment, without the jazz, without the Mexican whores, without the joy, and filled with desperately roving, starving people. The Road without the "On." Here is Dennis Lehane's review of it:
Cormac McCarthy sets his new novel, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic blight of gray skies that drizzle ash, a world in which all matter of wildlife is extinct, starvation is not only prevalent but nearly all-encompassing, and marauding bands of cannibals roam the environment with pieces of human flesh stuck between their teeth. If this sounds oppressive and dispiriting, it is. McCarthy may have just set to paper the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war, and in this recent age of relentless saber-rattling by the global powers, it's not much of a leap to feel his vision could be not far off the mark nor, sadly, right around the corner. Stealing across this horrific (and that's the only word for it) landscape are an unnamed man and his emaciated son, a boy probably around the age of ten. It is the love the father feels for his son, a love as deep and acute as his grief, that could surprise readers of McCarthy's previous work. McCarthy's Gnostic impressions of mankind have left very little place for love. In fact that greatest love affair in any of his novels, I would argue, occurs between the Billy Parham and the wolf in The Crossing. But here the love of a desperate father for his sickly son transcends all else. McCarthy has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries. In The Road, those batteries are almost out--the entire world is, quite literally, dying--so the final affirmation of hope in the novel's closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father's (and McCarthy's) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place, the oddest of all things: faith.
The unnamed man loves his son above all things, and his purpose is to deliver him, somehow, to survive in a world in which, he has faith, life will eventually re-emerge. The father is dying from consumption, and has little more than a half-loaded pistol and conviction on his side. His son is probably about 10 years old, about as old as the apocalypse which has enveloped the earth. The son's mother committed suicide. They are traveling across the devouring country, gradually south through manifold difficulties to the ocean, hoping to find deliverance. Their mission, their love, and their bond has three rules:

1) We will not eat children;
2) We will be the good guys;
3) We will preserve the fire of humanity.

I have contemplated these Cormac McCarthy endings. I know the minds of our leaders, who countenance and prefer apocalypse over the compromises they personally find unacceptable. No bullshit. Straight up. I'll say it out loud: they're closer than they ever were to pulling the trigger. Like frustrated, spoiled prodigies when the game turns unimaginably against them, they would rather upend the chess board than admit a loss. Their pride is paramount. Far more important than us. For the rest of humanity, that would be a do-over by the skin of the DNA left on the scum of our teeth. An excerpt, from page 11:
He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

He woke before dawn and watched the gray day break. Slow and half opaque. He rose while the boy slept and pulled on his shoes and wrapped in his blanket he walked out through the trees. He descended into a gryke in the stone and there he crouched coughing and he coughed for a long time. Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.
Am I scared? Yeah, I am. Damned straight. And so is Cormac McCarthy. I have sat with assholes in their frats, in their bishoprics and in their hypocritical councils, and have been dumb enough at times to do their frivolous biddings. But I'm not doing that anymore, and I'm not going to give up. There is something high above them which I, and our race, must serve. And I trust it will help us serve it. If it does not, our time is soon done.

A man comes up The Road on page 283. He looks responsible. The father has just died. The boy asks the man,
How do I know you're one of the good guys?
You don't. You'll have to take a shot.
Are you carrying the fire?
Am I what?
Carrying the fire.
You're kind of weirded out, aren't you?
Just a little.
That's okay.
So are you?
What, carrying the fire?
Yeah. We are.
Do you have any kids?
We do.
Do you have a little boy?
We have a little boy and a little girl.
How old is he?
He's about your age, maybe a little older.
And you didn't eat them.
You don't eat people.
No. We don't eat people.
And I can go with you?
Yes. You can.
Okay then.
And back at the beginning, on page 4:
He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.

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