Charlton Heston and a savagely coiffed vixen, wrapped in animal skins, riding horseback along a desolate seashore, confronted by the spike-crowned ruin of the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand: everyone knows how the world ends. First radiation, plague, an asteroid, or some other cataclysm kills most of humankind. The remnants mutate, lapse into feudalism, or revert to prehistoric brutality. Old cults are revived with their knives and brutal gods, while tiny noble bands cling to the tatters of the lost civilization, preserving knowledge of machinery, agriculture, and the missionary position against some future renascence, and confronting their ancestors’ legacy of greatness and destruction.
Ambivalence toward technology is the underlying theme, and thus we are accustomed to thinking of stories that depict the end of the world and its aftermath as essentially science fiction. These stories feel like science fiction, too, because typically they deal with the changed nature of society in the wake of cataclysm, the strange new priesthoods, the caste systems of the genetically stable, the worshipers of techno-death, the rigid pastoral theocracies in which mutants and machinery are taboo, etc.; for inevitably these new societies mirror and comment upon our own. Science fiction has always been a powerful instrument of satire, and thus it is often the satirist’s finger that pushes the button, or releases the killer bug.
This may help to explain why the post-apocalyptic mode has long attracted writers not generally considered part of the science fiction tradition. It’s one of the few subgenres of science fiction, along with stories of the near future (also friendly to satirists), that may be safely attempted by a mainstream writer without incurring too much damage to his or her credentials for seriousness. The anti–science fiction prejudice among some readers and writers is so strong that in reviewing a work of science fiction by a mainstream author a charitable critic will often turn to words such as “parable” or “fable” to warm the author’s bathwater a little, and it is an established fact that a preponderance of religious imagery or an avowed religious intent can go a long way toward mitigating the science-fictional taint, which also helps explain the appeal to mainstream writers such as Walker Percy of the post-apocalyptic story, whose themes of annihilation and re-creation are so easily indexed both to the last book of the New Testament and the first book of the Old. It’s hard to imagine the author of Love in the Ruins writing a space opera.
There is also a strong current of conventional hard-edged naturalism at work in much post-apocalyptic science fiction that may further serve to draw and to reassure the mainstream writer. If the destruction is sufficiently great, life and its appurtenances are reduced to a finite set, mitigating the demand for baroque inventiveness imposed by other kinds of science fiction, while the extreme state of the natural world—global ice, global goo, global ocean—serves to reflect the extremes of human psychology, of grace under the ultimate pressure. The great British tradition of the post-disaster novel pioneered by M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and John Collier’s forgotten masterpiece Tom’s A-Cold, retooled in the Fifties by John Wyndham and John Christopher and brought to a kind of bleak perfection by J.G. Ballard in the early Sixties, is very much a mainstream naturalist tradition, cold-eyed and unadorned, and novels like Christopher’s No Blade of Grass and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids were popular successes that found a wide readership. For the post-apocalyptic is also a mode into which mainstream readers may venture without risking the stain of geekdom.
The status of relative legitimacy enjoyed by the literature of global disaster may in part result from the fig leaf that a satiric or religious purpose provides, and from the congeniality to conventional realism of a world without supercomputers, starships, or eight-foot feline warriors from the planet Kzin. But perhaps it is mostly a measure of the growing sense in the minds of readers and writers alike, since the mid-twentieth century, of the plausibility, even the imminence, of the end of the world. Instantaneous global pandemics, melting ice caps, and transgenic eco-calamity have joined large-scale nuclear exchange as stalwarts of the front page of the daily newspaper. Meanwhile the old retro apocalypse is selling better than ever these days, reformulated in science-fictional packaging as the Left Behind novels.
Cormac McCarthy would have suffered no risk to his literary reputation and presented no insurmountable difficulty to his large mainstream readership, therefore, if he had written a science fiction novel called The Road about a father and son making their painful way across the carbonized waste of a post-holocaust America. And it is possible to imagine his having written such a book. Though he is not known as a satirist, his Blood Meridian, about a ruthless band of bounty hunters looking for Indian scalps in Texas in the 1850s, can be read at least in part as a bloody pasquinade on the heroic literature of westward expansion. A pawky gallows humor is a reliable if underappreciated element in much of McCarthy’s work, and in his only recent novel to be set more or less in the contemporary world, No Country for Old Men (2005), about a man in southwest Texas running for his life after stealing millions of dollars from a drug cartel, there are strong hints of the outrage, disgust, and sense of ineluctable decline that drive the satirist. And for naturalism operating at the utmost extremes of the natural world and of human endurance a McCarthy novel has no peer.
Indeed many reviewers, if they have not chosen to bestow on The Road the dispensation of calling it a fable or a parable, seem to have read The Road as the turn toward science fiction that any established literary writer may reasonably be permitted. “I’m always thrilled,” wrote Alan Cheuse, emphasizing the novelty and, perhaps, the faint air of slumming that attends the notion of McCarthy’s move to the science fiction neighborhood, “when a fine writer of first-class fiction takes up the genre of science fiction and matches its possibilities with his or her own powers.” “Part fable, part science fiction, total nightmare,” said the reviewer in USA Today, having it both ways at once.
In brief outline the relatively simple plot of The Road would seem to support such a reading. The book is set in the burned-over ruin of what appears to be the southeastern United States, ten years after a man-made disaster that is never specified has destroyed not only civilization and society but also, seemingly, every form of life apart from an unknown but small number of starving, brutalized, and miserable humans, and at least—perhaps at most—one dog. The universal wildfires resulting from the initial “long sheer of light and then a series of low concussions” have burned so intensely for so long that the resultant cloud of ash blots out sun and stars. The forests are forests of ash; the days are cold and cheerless and the nights frigid. The unnamed protagonist, whose thoughts are so often presented without third-person attribution that at times he verges asymptotically near to being the novel’s narrator, spends his days trying to provide food, clothing, and warmth for his nameless son, who was born shortly after the disaster about ten years ago and has never known any world but this burned one.
Father and son travel south and east, toward the sea and what they hope will be a warmer climate. The father suffers from the respiratory ill-effects of a decade spent breathing ash and smoke, and is racked by spasms of bloody coughing that we understand from the first will eventually kill him. The son copes with the imperfectly understood and erratically imparted legacy of the past that he bears on his thin shoulders, attempting to reconcile the stories that his father tells him with what is around him, to square the entire vanished culture and civilization implied by every word of American English that he speaks with the “cauterized terrain” of the unhistoried world he has inherited. It’s a dead planet, and human corpses, grotesque and pitiful and vividly depicted, people it.
The travelers make their way, rolling an old shopping cart piled with their pitiful hoard of canned food and blankets down a melted interstate, cold, starving, endangered by every other human being whose path they cross. Before they reach the sea—which turns out to be no warmer or more congenial than anyplace else they have been—they regularly encounter scattered hanks of the living who remain on the depilated surface of the earth. With few exceptions these encounters are replete both with bleak violence and acute suspense for the reader. The eventual safety of a character in a McCarthy novel is always in doubt, but the reader’s usual sense that a disembowelment or clean shot to the brainpan lies only a paragraph away has never been so excruciating as in The Road, where the life of a child whose innocence is literally singular is threatened from the first paragraph of the novel.
As they travel the father feeds his son a story, the nearest that he can come to a creed or a reason to keep on going: that he and his son are “carrying the fire.” In what this fire might consist he can never specify, but from this hopeful fiction or hopeless truth the boy seems to intuit a promise: that life will not always be thus; that it will improve, that beauty and purpose, sunlight and green plenty will return; in short that everything is going to be “okay,” a word which both characters endlessly repeat to each other, touching it compulsively like a sore place or a missing tooth. They are carrying the fire through a world destroyed by fire, and therefore—a leap of logic or faith that by the time the novel opens has become almost insurmountable for both of them—the boy must struggle on, so that he can be present at, or somehow contribute to, the eventual rebirth of the world.
For the father their life of constant motion, his intermittent good luck at finding provisions, and above all his long habit of seeing his boy as the only thing in the world worth saving and the saving of him as his only reason to live have engendered a religious sense of mission with regard to his son that is inevitably defined as a greater salvation: it verges explicitly on the messianic. Apart from keeping his son’s body and soul together this redemption is the father’s greatest preoccupation. But in the face of the bleakness and brutality of their lives his mission is difficult to sustain, and the father dies before he can see his son or the world redeemed.
Manifestly there is no reason to carry on, fire or not, through this “scabland,” which McCarthy portrays as so utterly defoliated and sterilized—the greatest corpse of all—that the idea of hope itself comes to seem like a kind of doom. The boy’s mother arrived early at this conclusion, killing herself when he was still a toddler. The impossibility of ever finding a home—literally a place to live—is dramatized and proven by McCarthy in a poignant passage in which the travelers discover a miraculous backyard fallout shelter, intact, untouched, built by some unknown survivalist—and here is McCarthy’s humor at absolute zero—who failed to survive. Here they find warmth, light, enough provisions to keep them healthy and fed for a very long time. Yet they cannot stay; the shelter has been built to withstand fallout and fire, but it is not secure against the depredations of men. It’s too exposed, too easily uncovered, and after a few precious days of self-indulgence the travelers are obliged once again to move on.
In this impossible land the mother’s choice is clearly the only sane one, and nothing that occurs in the course of the novel up to the death of the father argues against the suicide that, contemplating his gun and his pair of bullets (eventually reduced to one), he repeatedly ponders. And yet in the end he and his author can’t bring themselves to pull the trigger. McCarthy is ensnared and his hell undone by the paradox that lies at the heart of every story of apocalypse. The only true account of the world after a disaster as nearly complete and as searing as the one McCarthy proposes, drawing heavily on the “nuclear winter” scenario first proposed by Carl Sagan and others, would be a book of blank pages, white as ash. But to annihilate the world in prose one must simultaneously write it into being. Thus even an act of stylistic denial as extreme as McCarthy’s here—the densely foliated sentences of Suttree and Blood Meridian, teeming with allusion and inhabited by exotic nouns and rare adjectives, are burned away; the chapters and scenes broken down into fragments and rubble—remains, in spite of itself, an affirmation. The paradox of language undoing the death it deals animates every passage of the novel, as in this typical description:
The country went from pine to liveoak and pine. Magnolias. Trees as dead as any. He picked up one of the heavy leaves and crushed it in his hand to powder and let the powder sift through his fingers.
Powder, dead; sure. But those words liveoak, pine, the somehow onomatopoetic splendor of magnolia, still flower greenly in the mind before McCarthy crushes them, and that leaf, which if ash must weigh very little, still lies heavy against the father’s hand.
The paradox in every part and sentence of the post-apocalyptic narrative—evoking even as it denies—is repeated as if fractally by The Road as a whole. The son has wearied of his father’s stories of the past, of deeds of heroism and goodness, of the world that no longer exists—“Those stories are not true,” he complains—but he has none of his own to offer. He leads an all but storyless existence in which meaning, motivation, and resolution have no place and nothing to do. And yet of course the only way McCarthy has of laying this tragic state before us is through storytelling, through craft and incident and a layered, tightly constructed narrative that partakes of the epic virtue it attempts to abnegate.
This paradox, like a brutal syllogism, leads McCarthy, almost one senses in spite of himself, to conclude The Road on a note of possible redemption that while moving and reassuring is prepared for neither by one’s reading of his prior work nor, perhaps, by the novel itself. In order to destroy the world, it becomes necessary to save it.
All the elements of a science fiction novel of the post-apocalypse are present or at least hinted at, then, in The Road: the urgent naturalism of McCarthy’s description of torched woodland, desiccated human remains, decaying structures, human and natural violence; the ambivalence toward technology embodied in the destructive-redemptive role of fire; the faint inventive echoes of works like Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley and the Mad Max movies in McCarthy’s “bloodcults,” roving gangs of tattooed barbarian cannibals driven by lust and hunger and surviving bits of diesel-powered machinery; and the strong invitation to pardon the exercise as a fable extended by the namelessness of characters and locales, by the vague nature of the disaster that has befallen the world, by the presence of at least one semi-allegorical character and the usual, inevitable (in McCarthy’s work generally and the genre as a whole) speculation on the presence or absence of God. There are bits of satire of a very dark order in the hints that religious extremism caused the holocaust, and in the relentless way McCarthy deprives the foolish reader of the reassurances—a few precious surviving books, a luxuriant return of wildlife, a sense of savage freedom, or a necessary cleansing of the old corrupt word—of the strange comfort, that post-apocalyptic stories characteristically provide.
The Road is neither parable nor science fiction, however, and fundamentally it marks not a departure but a return to McCarthy’s most brilliant genre work, combined in a manner we have not seen since Blood Meridian: adventure and Gothic horror. That book (also a western, of course, like its three successors) is usually viewed not only as McCarthy’s greatest—a view I passionately share—but as representing a kind of fulcrum, a borderland between the early quartet of Tennessee novels written in the 1960s and 1970s (The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree) that left McCarthy in obscurity and the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) that brought him fame. In Blood Meridian lushness of prose counterbalances aridity of setting; digression and indirection have not yet ceded the narrative to the dictates of the trilogy’s archetypical western plots; and the Gothic impulse vies fiercely with the call to adventure. Setting aside the halfhearted No Country for Old Men, as charitably even the lover of McCarthy must, The Road seems to work its way back to the rich storytelling borderland of horror and the epic.
It is the adventure story in both its modern and epic forms that structures the narrative. There are strong echoes of the Jack London–style adventure, down to this novel’s thematic emphasis on the imperative to build a fire, in the father’s inherent resourcefulness, in his handiness with tools and guns, his foresight and punctilio, his resolve—you can only call it pluck—in the face of overwhelming natural odds, savage tribesmen, and the despair of solitude. Of course the underlying model for this modern kind of adventure story is Robinson Crusoe; and post-apocalyptic tales of lone survivors, such as George R. Stewart’s classic Earth Abides, have long played fruitfully with the pattern of Defoe’s novel, depicting as heroic if problematic a lone attempt to impose a bourgeois social order on an irrational empty wilderness after the Bomb or virus strikes.
The Road also can be read as an older form of adventure story that became discredited after the advent of Robinson Crusoe, that orderly, bourgeois, house-proud, and anxious hero, but has haunted the work of McCarthy for years: the epic. Like the earlier duo of John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, the two young ranchers in the Border Trilogy novels, The Road’s father and son—the latter’s blond head evoked through conscious Grail imagery as a “golden chalice, good to house a god”—are bound up in a quest narrative, walking (by necessity, horses having become extinct) to find not revenge or justice or love as in those other books but a healing land of warmth and sunlight. There is no such place, we fear, and so like Blood Meridian the quest here feels random, empty at its core; but the attitudes toward it of the characters and of the reader are altogether different. Though they and we fear it must end in tragedy and failure, we are rooting for them, pulling for them, from the first—and so, we suspect, is the author.
But it’s not the goal of the journey, the movement toward healing, however illusory, that marks The Road as epic adventure: rather it’s the passage of its heroes through Hell. In Walter M. Miller Jr.’s introduction to Beyond Armageddon, an anthology of post-apocalypse short stories, the late author of the seminal after-the-bomb novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (set in McCarthy’s Southwest) suggests that what most characterizes the form is not the setting or action—the scarred landscape, the savage contending tribes, the mutations, the deprivations, the desolation and death—but rather the epic persistence with which its protagonists are haunted by the ghosts of the dead, by the vanished. The world post-apocalypse is not Waterworld; it’s the Underworld. In his stories, his memories, and above all in his dreams, the father in The Road is visited as poignantly and dreadfully as Odysseus or Aeneas by ghosts, by the gibbering shades of the former world that populate the gray sunless hell which he and his son are daily obliged to harrow.
Indeed the novel itself describes a course that seems to carry it into the ghost world of McCarthy’s early novels and early life, abandoning the American Southwest where the author has lived and has set his novels since the late Seventies for what seems to be Tennessee. At one point the travelers cross a bridge that may well be Knoxville’s Henley Street Bridge, a talismanic structure in Suttree; at another they seem to repeat the visit that Cornelius Suttree, the hero of the novel who leaves his rich family to become a river fisherman, pays to his ruined childhood home.
The constant haunting of the protagonist by the ghosts of his own and our collective American past marks the point where the strands of epic begin to blend, as in Blood Meridian, with those of the other genre in which Cormac McCarthy has to be accounted as a secret master, and the rightful heir (but oh how one hates to invoke yet another Great American Writer in discussing McCarthy, who at times has seemed to be in danger of disappearing in a heavy snowfall of comparisons to Melville, Faulkner, O’Connor, Hemingway) to the American Gothic tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, dark god of Providence, Rhode Island, where McCarthy was born. McCarthy’s early novels are not merely violent; they are almost gaudily so. They trade in necrophilia, perversion, and baby murder, and reading them one is struck repeatedly by the way he displays the bloody-minded glee of the horror writer, the gross-out artist, as when he goes to some length, in Suttree, to depict with atrocious vividness the slaughter of a hapless turtle to make soup; or in this novel, notoriously, to treat readers to the sight of a baby roasting on a spit.
It is not enough for a horror writer to assert, with the mainstream of literature, that in the knowledge of death our life is vain show, and to set a skull as a memento mori in the corner of his canvas. No, the skull must have a starring role; it ought, as reported in one of the three epigraphs to Blood Meridian, to show “evidence of having been scalped.” Better still if we see the neck tendons severed, the vertebrae snapped, and the skin flensed with a hunting knife or gnawed off the bone by clacking insects.
Horror grows impatient, rhetorically, with the Stoic fatalism of Ecclesiastes. That we are all going to die, that death mocks and cancels every one of our acts and attainments and every moment of our life histories, this knowledge is to storytelling what rust is to oxidation; the writer of horror holds with those who favor fire. The horror writer is not content to report on death as the universal system of human weather; he or she chases tornadoes. Horror is Stoicism with a taste for spectacle.
The end of the world, therefore, has long been a temptation as appealing to writers of horror fiction as to those of science fiction. Poe sent a fiery comet to do the job in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.” Richard Matheson, in his novel I Am Legend, sent a bacterial plague that induces vampirism, and in The Stand Matheson’s greatest disciple, Stephen King, wiped out humanity with the superflu known as Captain Trips. And I think ultimately it is as a lyrical epic of horror that The Road is best understood.
Horror fiction proceeds, in general, by extending metaphors, by figuring human fears of mortality, corruption, and the loss of self. The haunted house (or planet), the case of demonic possession, the nightmare journey to or through a charnel house, the transubstantiation of human flesh into something awful and foul, the exposed wolfishness of men, the ineradicable ancestral curse of homicidal depravity—all of them tropes to be encountered, in one form or another, in McCarthy’s work—trade on these deep-seated fears, these fundamental sources of panic, and seek to flay them, to lay them open, to drag them into the light.
What emerges most powerfully as one reads The Road is not a prognosticatory or satirical warning about the future, or a timeless parable of a father’s devotion to his son, or yet another McCarthyesque examination of the violent underpinnings of all social intercourse and the indifference of the cosmic jaw to the bloody morsel of humanity. The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears. The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with. The fear of one day being obliged for your child’s own good, for his peace and comfort, to do violence to him or even end his life. And, above all, the fear of knowing—as every parent fears—that you have left your children a world more damaged, more poisoned, more base and violent and cheerless and toxic, more doomed, than the one you inherited. It is in the audacity and single-mindedness with which The Road extends the metaphor of a father’s guilt and heartbreak over abandoning his son to shift for himself in a ruined, friendless world that The Road finds its great power to move and horrify the reader.
February 15, 2007