Have all of Cormac McCarthy’s fictional odysseys been leading to this, a world blasted gray and featureless by human folly and cosmic indifference, inhabited only by pitiless predators and (arguably) lucky survivors? Or is The Road just further rumination from a man who, metaphorically or otherwise, finds himself on unrecognizable terrain in the final years of his life?
Take your pick. The genius of Mc- Carthy’s work, whether you find it risible or profound, is in its bold, seamless melding of private revelation, cultural insight, and unabashed philosophizing. Sci-fi divination is new for him, though, and the freshness he brings to this end-of-the-world narrative is quite stunning: It may be the saddest, most haunting book he’s ever written, or that you’ll ever read.
His previous novel, No Country for Old Men, was nothing if not pre-apocalyptic,
and The Road fulfills that bitter promise in spades. Its stripped-down story, however, couldn’t be more removed from the doggedly elliptical No Country: A man and his young son trek southwesterly through an unnamed, nuclear-winterized landscape in search of warmth and on the run from bands of cannibalistic outlaws. As the pair scavenge for food and comfort among eerily abandoned towns and withered forests, they provide each other with—just barely—a reason not to lie down and die.
Never one to indulge in explosive action (he’s more the propulsive type—”they went on” is this tale’s Blood Meridian–like mantra), McCarthy holds back even more than usual here. The milieu—a sprawling, horizonless vale of drifting ash and spindly rubble, “the ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be”—is startling for its lack of customary descriptive detail, and the book is all the more wrenching for it; the degree of ruin might make even Judge Holden blanch. McCarthy underplays the familiar last-man-on-earth pulp accoutrements as well, making The Road more Time of the Wolf than Mad Max, and more Kuroi Ame than either of those (devoid of that novel’s debatable reassurance that the world was more or less intact after Hiroshima’s incineration).
It’s also McCarthy’s purest fable yet. The troubled bond that links the man, a compulsive isolationist tyrannized by his fading memories (“The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true”), and the boy, who longs to stop and make contact with other “good guys” on the road, is key to the book’s mythic scope: Its argument exists in the tension between the rank self-centeredness necessary to survive as an individual and the altruism required to survive as a species. As such, it seems as much McCarthy’s second response to the West’s accelerated social erosion (the frankly bewildered No Country being the first) as a heartsick accounting of irretrievable extinction.
The Road also represents a more personal reckoning, albeit a less angry one than its predecessor. Despite the apocalyptic setting, McCarthy lets down his cynical guard enough to suggest that the future—to say nothing of the present—invariably resembles a wasteland when viewed from the vantage point of someone with an abundance of past. (Not that he’s lost his edge; there are plenty of robust allusions to Western lit’s better-known Father and Son act here, too.) It’s a gentle, compassionate gesture, and hints that this could well be McCarthy’s swan song—potential bad news for his fans.
Whether or not that’s the case, they should be satisfied with the current offering’s characteristic helpings of hypnotic, gut-punching prose and bracing depictions of emotional longing (“She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned” )—qualities McCarthy’s detractors seem bizarrely content to underestimate or overlook. Indeed, for all its allegorical underpinnings and stark grandeur, the tender precariousness of The Road‘s human relationships is what finally makes it such a beautiful, difficult, near perfect work.