Cormac McCarthy is often an incomparable stylist with one of the best eyes for realism in some time--his original language, imagery and depiction of landscape are spectacular--but if character is the life-blood of fiction, it is surprising that he is hailed consistently as one of our greatest living writers. He is more interested in styling the way people talk, than getting at the very strangeness of the human heart. He excels in creating mythic characters. They posture in archetypes, evoking the strong silent types and mustachioed villains of western frontier legend, or Gothic grotesques and rebellious southern sons, while some of the women speak as if reciting lines in a Sophoclean tragedy (the wife in The Road before she kills herself). Here is just some of her parting speech:
"The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart."
Sometimes his characters succeed in the only way a character needs to--through the essence of being, the impression they make on us. Yet, somebody like John Grady Cole, who occupies the core of the McCarthy canon, is dull and callow when it comes to love, falling for the wrong women in such an adolescent way that you question if love is, for McCarthy, just another stubborn stand to make against evil. He doesn't impart the same intensity and detail to relationships that he lavishes on the process of building a lean-to, or the colors in a Western sky. As a result, it's less than convincing when Cole risks everything for his high-born Mexican girl or the prostitute whom he would redeem against all odds and common sense. If McCarthy cared about relationships or people that much (and he's too good a writer not to succeed at what he puts his mind and eye to), he could move beyond mere fatalism and macho-stubbornness as the only alternatives in the face of grim reality. In The Road, McCarthy succeeds in the father and son domain. A father himself for the first time, McCarthy may well have been in the swoon of tender feelings. Here is a relationship that really matters to him. The father passes on his moral rules to his son and the boy for his part is there to hold the father to them. This singular focus overrides enough of McCarthy's mythologizing ways to keep things real. For the most part. Yet even in their touching vulnerability and desperate interdependence, they must serve the master of McCarthy's myth of good and evil. The dialogue suffers because of this to the point of being a droll parody of itself by the end of the novel. And what parent would ever say, 'My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God"? It's more like something a stern-faced nun would tell a young novitiate, and as comforting to a scared 10-year old as a cold stethoscope ranging under a thin hospital johnny.
McCarthy's sincerity (a kind of willed authority) makes it possible for him to get away with pompous and theodician utterances like this from his characters. The man is not saying this for the child's benefit, of course, but to cobble together the author's theodicy. One example that is more believable, and describes a ritual process characteristic of many ancient religious traditions is the refrain repeated by the man and boy: we carry the fire. In such traditions only through participating in specially designed rituals and entering them with a certain mental discipline was it possible to experience the reality of God or the mystery of being. Consciously or not, McCarthy is showing us a father and son creating their own religion in the face of extinction. The ritual chant, along with the literal fires (the gathering of wood, the lighting, stoking and reviving of fire that is described repeatedly), keeps them psychologically and physically going. And when the man tells old Ely, What if I said he's a god?, speaking of the boy, we hear the gears of McCarthy's theodicy machine rolling out blocks of divine goodness on a rhetorical conveyor belt. The father and son theme has noisy Christian overtones of blood atonement to begin with--McCarthy's go to means of conflict resolution. But is there any substance to it? Any point in it?
The father has bet all on the survival of his son in a dead world with no future, and the boy has put all his trust in the ethic of a father who will die and abandon him to that void of a world. What sense are we to make of their new, old-time religion? To what end does the man say of the boy, If he is not the word of God then God never spoke? Finally, what has their ritual suffering, their privation, the mortal danger, freezing cold and malnourishment taught them of God? In the end it has not prepared the man to kill his own son if the circumstance arose (as he has promised), so as not to leave him alone in the world a victim of rape and cannibalism. The man says they were always lucky and he thinks the boy will be lucky too and urges him to go out on the road. Is that to say, finally, their god is good fortune? Survival is mere luck? If it seems like an evasion, it is because not only has the man failed to keep his promise to the boy but also bestows, 'You'll be lucky' on him as a pathetic benediction. He can't with any certainty know that. It's what makes their parting so affecting. The son says take me with you, but in the end the man leaves fate or cruel strangers to do what he cannot bring himself to do. The separation of father and son echos the Biblical account of the crucifixion--My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?--and hints at some Biblical allegory riding on that secular wind after all. Only the man cannot sacrifice the son, as God sacrifices Christ. Nevertheless, there is a resurrection of sorts for the doomed boy. He gets lucky and finds some good guys who have been watching with concern from afar and come back for him. McCarthy lets the man and us off the hook. If the reader wants to take the penultimate paragraph at face value (read hope)--that the breath of God is passed on from man to man and that torch has now been passed on to the boy--the disclaimer in the final paragraph (Not to be put right again) shouldn't be ignored.
It's as if after having run his characters through an unimaginable gauntlet of suffering and horrors, he didn't have the stomach to show us what really happens to the boy. And the final paragraph, with its shifting mumbo-jumbo in the omniscient point of view about trout running in clear streams and the earth humming mysteries is a kind of lyrical cop-out that airbrushes hard facts.
In many ways, The Road is the apotheosis of all that McCarthy is as a novelist and there is greatness in it. Even so, it is a world whittled down to the three things he loves to write about and describe most: his fetish for painting tableaus of horrific violence and carnage, the rudiments and mechanics of masculine tinkering and outdoor survival (the visage of primal humanity), and most importantly his majesterial theme and variations on landscape (especially as signified moral condition, metaphysical judgment or a vague and poorly developed philosophic). Book after book, that is the sum and substance of McCarthy. The Road., in a strange way, amounts to a wishing away of all the things that do not interest him. And in doing so he has distilled two simple rules to live and die by: Don't give up and, no matter what, do not prey upon your fellow human beings. The moral lessons in his books are clear and simple and can often be summed up in a single sentence.
McCarthy is a survivalist's kind of writer: macho, fatalistic and armed to kill. He envisions life at the level of necessity. Inevitably, he had to create a novel purely about survival. The only thing that really matters in The Road are shoes, food and fire. And from his chair, at a typewriter (if he still uses one) McCarthy can inflict the misery of post-apocalyptic survival on his poor father and son, while he revels in page after page of breathtaking description on the theme of the ruined world that is his over-described and under-analyzed subject. What else is there for the man to do in a world without people but describe repetitively the totality of ruin as an analogy for the depravity of a world abandoned by God? He might explore interior landscapes more fully and some of the philosophical questions that are inevitably raised by the specter of apocalypse. So while his rendering of survival on a dead planet is vividly and fiercely imagined, he has not revealed anything surprising about humanity, nothing we haven't come to expect in a McCarthy novel. The death and cruelty he describes does not exceed that of the Crusades, The Holocaust, or the nightmare of American slavery. Stories of human trafficking and sex slavery are in the news every day and instances of cannibalism have occurred in other survival scenarios in our time. So if human beings will act this way in the best of times and the worst of times, is there nothing more to say than there are good guys and bad guys? In his other 9 novels he has intoned variations of that essential state. But is there nothing more to say about the ending of the world?
The human choices in The Road are as stark as the world he imagines, but they are more challenging as metaphors than they are in reality. For example, it is more complicated as participants at some level in contemporary capitalist society to know exactly if our own behaviors could be considered a form of preying upon our fellow human beings, than in The Road where if you are eating other people for food and killing them for their meager possessions, you are one of the bad guys. Of course, the cannibal might say that he is not a bad guy, if given a voice, just more committed to survival than McCarthy's hero. In The Road the quality of life is so wretched, the planet so dead, the loneliness so deep, that it is not such a difficult moral choice whether to starve to death or kill and eat your fellow humans. One is not essentially more difficult or less desirable than the other. In fact, one of the man's meditations might have been whether he'd subjected his boy to more torment in keeping him alive and holding out an empty hope, than putting a bullet in his head while he slept. If he'd thought about the world in those terms, he probably could have worked up the courage. The thought only grazes conscious expression and would be lethal to the man's survival project and the book's if it were given full voice. The character of old Ely makes this suggestion, and his apparent indifference makes his survival on the road so remarkable he might as well be an angelic apparition as a real man--a voice worth listening to. While he is mocked by the man for his understated platitude "in times like these" (in fact time has stopped), we understand the real rub for the man is the nihilism on display when Ely says it will be better when everybody is gone.
He can't accept this. To consider it strikes hard against the ego of being, and it is well to wonder in times like these whether The Road is a great novel of the human spirit or another tough guy novel about the stubbornness of the human ego, and whether McCarthy considered the difference. Emily St. John Mandel contemplates a post-humanist planet in her own post-apocalyptic Station Eleven. After the loss is absorbed, some 20 years hence, there is a sense that without most of us, and the technology that brought much evil along with good, the world has a chance to begin again. But St. John Mandel's is a green planet ravaged by a world-wide flu, not a post-nuclear age.
The temporal gulf between McCarthy's other novels and the future vision of The Road reminds us that with the exception of No Country for Old Men set in 1980 (and still full of enough wild west style shoot-outs to feel anachronistic), none of his novels are set in the time in which McCarthy has lived most of his adult, writer's life. The avoidance of modernity--his preference for a world of white male heroes on horseback, where women are not central and need saving, where men tinker and fix things, break wild horses, ride to the point of exhaustion, stitch up their own wounds without anesthetic and always, always fight the bad guys--is the most indelible feature of McCarthy's work. There is a sense in which McCarthy has to be the supreme realist, because behind the hard existential facts of poverty in rural Tennessee, or the borderlands of the Southwest, or the scablands of the Apocalypse hides a nostalgia for simplicity, and some pure lost form of masculinity that cannot coexist with farm subsidies, border walls, classrooms, political protests and mass transit, cannot cast its spell with the roar of jet engines and contrails marring the religious fresco of a natural sky. Even The Road's stark world of devastation belongs more to the solitary world of his rural frontiers, is lyrical rather than dissonant, and avoids an essential confrontation with modern life. So that we never learn if we perished through our own works, or a comet hurled by a God last so disgusted by Cretaceous dinosaurs, or just cosmic chance.