No Trip to the Beach
Life in a dead world in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
by George Logan
The Road is one of Cormac McCarthy’s shortest books. You may read it in one sitting. You may not be able to help it.
To be officially released later this month, it’s the latest novel from the Knoxville-raised author of nine other novels, including All the Pretty Horses, No Country For Old Men and Child of God .
Though its setting is as grim as any of his famously grim books, it’s a departure in ways that go beyond its fable-like brevity.
The setting, to begin with, seems unMcCarthyesque. The Road is set in an apparently post-nuclear future. Some years ago, something exploded, and has blotted out the sun, and everything is dead except for an indeterminate number of desperate human beings. The stores have mostly been looted of their canned goods; almost all that remains to be eaten is other people.
Among the inexplicably living are an unnamed man and his son. As desperate as things are everywhere, they decide the one thing they can’t survive is the cold. From some dead city in the North, they make their way southeast toward the ocean, looting the houses and stores of the dead, and steering clear of cannibals.
One characterization marks a departure, too. Until now, the typical McCarthy protagonist is autonomous, adult, male and armed. He moves independent of family. Children are rare, and when they do appear, they’re props, a little less engaging than mules.
In The Road , one of the two main characters is a small child, one as fully characterized as most of McCarthy’s adult characters.
He finds heart in his father’s repeated assurances that they are among the “good guys.” And that somewhere, out there, there are others.
It’s also the first novel since Suttree , over 25 years ago, that seems to include a description of McCarthy’s hometown.
Our tourism folks probably won’t have much use for this latest excerpt about Knoxville. In The Road , everybody in town is dead.
The author hardly uses any proper place names—there’s mention of “the eastern mountains,” a brief mention of the lower-case word, piedmont . But before they get to the gap where they cross the mountains on their southbound quest for the sea, the duo encounter a dead lake behind a silent dam and “a long barn in a field with an advertisement in faded ten-foot letters across the roofslope See Rock City.”
Then they come upon a dead city: “the long concrete sweeps of the interstate exchanges like the ruins of a vast funhouse against the distant murk…. The mummified dead everywhere…. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting…. The only thing that moved in the streets was the blowing ash. They crossed the high concrete bridge over the river. A dock below. Small pleasure boats half sunken in the gray water. Tall stacks downriver dim in the soot.”
Just south of town, the father shows his son the house where he grew up. As McCarthy fanatics know, the author grew up in a house on Martin Mill Pike in South Knoxville. Even in this extreme circumstance, the dad wants to show the boy where he came from.
In these ways they carry on. To call The Road a pessimistic book would be to miss some of its points. Everything’s dead, and hopes of any sort of normal life or happiness for the kid seem as dim as the sun. But still.
The unnamed father genuinely cares for his unnamed son. It’s not a setup for a rape or murder. It’s real, and consistent, uncompromised by selfish motives.
One of the abiding themes of the book is the simplicity of paternal love. For those who want to read something autobiographical in McCarthy’s motives, the author helps with a little nudge. The book is dedicated to one John Francis McCarthy, presumably the 73-year-old author’s young son.
Fatherhood makes saps of us all.
In The Road , the ruined world is no sadistic sci-fi fantasy. It may be, at its heart, only a metaphor for life as it is, stripped of the distractions of music and restaurants and sex and birds singing in the trees. It’s life, and the most intractable characteristic of life is that it ends.
At one point the boy asks his father, “Are we going to die?”
What father in far more comfortable circumstances can answer differently?
Some have jumped to the conclusion that it’s the 73-year-old author’s final book, his swan song. Others aren’t so sure. But it would do. The book closes with a door left open, and one of the loveliest paragraphs written in this weird century.
Throughout his career, McCarthy has employed bleak imagery and desperate characters to show that the human spirit prevails even in the most abject conditions, that against all odds there’s something there that keeps fighting. And maybe there’s something there that’s worth fighting for.