Cormac McCarthy is known for his gratuitous violence – blood, gore, screaming pain and horribly inflicted death. I’ve seen three of his books as films – No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road. I was determined to see The Road as soon as it came out, as I’m a big Viggo fan, even though I’d already taken the book out of the library sometime before and so knew it would be full of cellars of decomposing bodies – worse – cellars full of living bodies, waiting to die at the hands of the cannibals who imprisoned them.
Reading it once again, on Kindle, I don’t have such a terrible sense of doom, because I know there is a possibly glimmer of light at the very end of the story. This time, I spotted the signals of hope that are lightly threaded through the story. I didn't feel so tense and worried about ‘The Boy' and his future. Even so, it’s The Boy that brings a sense of tension to the story, because he’s the one that’s always asking…is there danger? Don’t lets go in there…what’s that noise, Dad? Are those bad guys? He articulates the fears of the story, while ‘The Man’ constantly reassures his son,…it’s okay…keep moving… This doesn't reassure the reader, though; we know that The Man is equally terrified of everything they may find ahead on their road. Secretly, as the very same concerns as The Boy. In his head, he often asks himself why he’s taking this journey in the impossible hope of finding warm seas in the south of the USA. But aloud, he simply encourages his son to keep going.
Time moves back and forwards in the story. We see man and boy journey along a bare landscape after a final apocalypse has devastated everything, and, (it feels at first), killed most of the people and possibly all of the wildlife. From the start, I assumed that this devastation is world-wide, although we’re not told this. For a long time we only see man, boy, and the occasional lost soul along the road, while, in his mind, The Man thinks back to before the apocalypse, remembering, in short passages, his wife and their love, her pregnancy, and then the event atomic or natural, whatever has caused this absolute brokenness, and after it, the baby being born, and their decision to try to journey across the land to the sea. Perhaps they hope to get onboard some imagined boat; perhaps he just thinks it will be warmer down there, in contrast to the conditions they travel through, where ash blows all around them, and their shoes are wrapped in sacking against deep snow.
In one flashback we see the wife decide to leave them while they sleep, and go off to her death, her suicide. I found that particularly shocking, and wondered if a woman writer would have imagined this in the same way; women rarely leave their children voluntarily. So I have to think of this as a writer’s device; McCarthy wanted The Road
to be about a boy and a man. I don’t blame him. What he created was powerful reading which, for all its masculine tone, is moving and full of tender love. He gets right into the head of The Man for most of the time. We never see The Boy’s thoughts, but often McCarthy moves out of the thoughts and immediate perceptions of The Man while constantly shifting from The Man's warm-hearted love to an more objective viewpoint to observe the savage, dreadful landscape and its inhabitants.
McCarthy injects much power into his writing. A clever strategy to help this is that he drops all use of speech marks. There are no long dialogues, so they are easily dispensed with, along with some apostrophes, some capital letters and all semi colons. Alongside this bid for immediacy the use of heightened language, which, as we move away from inner thoughts to McCarthy’s narration, becomes lyrical. He uses this technique because The Man doesn’t have the time or energy to be ‘poetical’ – he’s too exhausted, in fact he’s half dead, even when we first meet him. The two travellers barely have strength to talk;
[The Boy:] It's really cold
Where are we?
Where are we?
I dont know.
If we were going to die would you tell me?
I dont know. We're not going to die.
This becomes one of two main tensions, or questions of conflict, in the book. The first is ‘when will the bad guys come’. They do come, often. The first takes one of the bullets in The Man’s gun; it leaves him with one bullet, which is not enough for him to be able to execute himself and The Boy if they need to die rapidly. It was the one thing that had kept him going…that he had those two bullets. This happens about a 1/4 of the way into the book, and is one of many points in the story where tension…and blood pressure…is raised. The second main question of conflict is ‘will The Man die before The Boy is safe’. There might be a third question, but I found it hard to ask. ‘Will they both die?’ was something I didn't have the heart to think about. I didn’t want to believe even McCarthy could do that to his story, even though I know he can be absolutely brutal in his writing. I know McCarthy wouldn't spare me the honest reality, which was that everyone in that world would surely die. I read on, wondering why I was so hopeful.
The story is crisscrossed with the image, and symbol, of roads. The man and boy spend much time on the road, described wonderfully by McCarthy. It is the guideline of the novel, a desolate, transient thing, full of danger. It always points to where they need to go, even though it would be a rare reader who, while reading, sees the point to going there. The road was a physical reality, the ever onward walking, walking, but also a state of mind…the understanding that we see our journey through life as the ‘road ahead’, which we are always taking, until we die. A second symbol of journeying is the shopping cart (supermarket trolley) they push, filled with all their wordy goods. This is their grail, their treasure, and yet it’s almost impossible to drive smoothly along, especially up or down hill, or through snow. As I read, I was always aware of its vital importance. When they hide it to run away from the ‘bloodcults' who form lethal gangs, or to search derelict houses, I worried about the cart, fearing that it would be looted while they are gone. And sometimes, it is. Fire, another symbol used cleverly, punctuates the roadway. They build fire every night, when they can, even though sometimes it might draw the wrong attention. Eventually, The Boy has to leave his father, and The Man lists instructions…keep going south. Keep the gun with you. Find the good guys. But, most important…
You have to carry the fire.
I don't know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes, it is.
Where is it? I don't know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
McCarthy refuses to let you look away, but at the same time, you’re allowed to, sort of, because the reader is likely to identify deeply with The Boy. Like fire, he is a symbol of hope, and The Man, perpetually tender towards his son, is always making him look away from the grossness of their world, to lie in a ditch, stay out of sight. Their relationship stabilises and motivates the father. Of course it does; The Boy is all The Man has to live for and move forward for. The Boy often uses the word ‘okay’ as if to console, reassure. An understanding, came right as I began to read that first time. The Boy has learnt quickly. He does not run out of sight, he does not play unless something is initiated by his father. He does not laugh. He is rarely ‘naughty’, but occasionally, he can be cruel to his dad. He has grown old, while still small, and with it, he’s gained amazing wisdom. He’s been born into the post-apocalyptic world and has known nothing but cold, pain, ill health and fear, and yet he’s actually the one that has compassion for outsiders. I found that convincing. Children can be wonderfully ‘self-righteous’, but this compassion seems more than this, as if, with no play and no fun in his life, he’s worked through a philosophy in which kindness is paramount. After all, it’s what he has constantly received from his father, for whom he is a…golden chalice, good house to a god…
Hisconstant approach becomes another rich symbol in the book. I began to see The Man as representing the human – the brutal, if sentient, creature with a strong instinct to survive. He keeps going because he must. To do what his wife did is unthinkable, even though he knows there might be a time, if they fell into the hands of a bloodcult, that death would be preferable. But to survive, they cannot show compassion to any outsider. They cannot offer food to the starving, for they are starving too. They cannot stop to help the trapped, or the distressed, because they have no time to waste, and in any case, all others are seen as a threat – best they stay trapped.
The boy, in contrast, has a shining empathy with those in need. He is constantly exploring his father to be benevolent, to show fellow-feeling, to stop, to help, to share what they have. When his father uses the penultimate bullet in the gun to save their lives, The Boy cannot speak or even look at his dad for a long time. Even though it’s clear The Boy, in his young wisdom understands, why The Man has made such rules, he constantly rises above them.
The boy kept looking back. Papa? he whispered. What is wrong with the man?
He's been struck by lightning.
Cant we help him? Papa?
No. We cant help him.
The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa? he said.
Cant we help him Papa?
No. We cant help him. There's nothing to be done for him.
To me, The Boy’s response represented the soul within the sentient being, and the core understanding that together, they make up a sort of duality of being human; the father’s brutal drive for survival is an external need, but locked inside is a sort of radiant grace, that links with the way The Man considers The Boy as a chalice. And that’s why I think the book has the end it has – why I didn't need to worry about asking that third, awful question.
McCarthy is a renowned recluse, and would never write a happy(ish) end just because he thought his readership might like it, or because his editor demanded it. I think at the end, what we see is the body stripped away, and the soul walk out of it. The boy walks into the light, taking the inner fire. As if to prove it, McCarthy finishes the book like this…
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional…In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.