America loves her travelers. Whether it’s Jack London’s White Fang, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant or Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise, there are many journeying souls who have lit up the pages of America’s best-loved books. Add to their number the father and son of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
The unnamed pair traverses the landscape of a post-apocalyptic world, journeying toward the ocean and an unknown horizon. The father is doomed, coughing like a hag, and he simply keeps pushing the shopping cart filled with their possessions along the scarred and blighted landscape of the country, looking out with a chary eye for fellow survivors.
McCarthy’s The Road is a world of oblivion with the “charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind.” For father and son, the world holds the anarchistic triad of murder, rape and cannibalism, and McCarthy’s style adds to the fatalistically bleak world he describes.
As with both Faulkner and Joyce, McCarthy avoids quotation marks in the book. He uses precious few commas and worth few words. He simply uses the necessary amount of language needed to tell the story of a family’s survival in this minatory, “ashen scabland.”
McCarthy’s novels are a bulwark against the listless writing filling the bestsellers shelves of our bookstores. From The Orchard Keeper, his first novel, to No Country for Old Men, his most recent before The Road, McCarthy examines the aspect of the human in a measured, assiduous manner, revealing not just the skull beneath the skin, but also the mind inside the skull.
In The Road’s post-nuclear world, father and son drag their broken bodies toward an uncertain shore. The father knows his death is imminent, and his sleep is broken by dreams of the wife he watched die at an unknown moment after the apocalyptic event that rendered the world a blasted and charred landscape devoid of technology and civilization. He coughs blood, curses at God and pushes on in order to give his son the best possible chance of “passing on the flame” and surviving to regenerate the earth somehow.
At times, the journey seawards seems futile, given the son’s inadequate survival skills and the father’s imminent demise. Yet the camaraderie and faith they have in each other compels both to put one foot down after the other and to soldier on into a blasted, uncertain future.
McCarthy strips both the landscape and his characters of names and instead focuses on the anywhere-ness and anybody-ness of the post-apocalyptic world where his novel takes place. The reader is a voyeuristic companion to the two as they make their slow way to an ocean where nothing is certain and nothing may be found.
The ocean functions as a trope for the promised land, even if that promise delivers only despair and hopelessness. In the end, the father passes on the beacon to the son, leaving him to survive in the brave new world of the moment. McCarthy has written his magnum opus (and then some) with this majestic novel.