by Cormac McCarthy
256 pages, Picador
Review by Pat Black
No Direction Home
Stuck on a snowbound train, caught between two countries, an icy wasteland only just visible beyond the window, lots of grim-faced people around about me and my stomach growling with hunger - conditions couldn’t have been better for a read of Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, The Road.
A grit-lit classic, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the book will come to even wider attention now that a film version starring Viggo Mortenson is due out shortly. It’s a simple story of a father and son – never named – making their way through a post-apocalyptic American landscape towards the sea, and hopefully a better life, people they can trust. They’ve got nothing in their possession but a shopping trolley, the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet, a tarpaulin to sleep under plus a gun with two bullets in it. They survive on the tinned foods they can find in the abandoned, haunted houses and ransacked stores they look inside on the way. Their fellow travellers on the road are mostly gangs of cannibals attempting to eat them, or scavengers intent on their store of provisions. Everyone they meet is treated as a potential roadkill chef with designs on whatever meat they have left in their wasted, grimy bodies.
It recalls Hemingway in its stripped down descriptions and bleak outcomes, but it’s a lot less concerned with the type of internal lives, grumpiness and sometimes pomposity of Uncle Ernie’s characters than it is with the pair’s need for basic survival. The man in the story isn’t a sourpuss wanting to show you how horrible life is – and you’ll take it and like it, boy – but he does worry about how he’s going to feed his son, as well as some of the choices he might have to make when all hope is finally extinguished.
There is great tension in the encounters with cannibal gangs and moments of outright horror when we see just how far society has broken down, and the things people are prepared to do to others simply to survive. There are worse things than rape in this book, and worse things than cannibalism.
It might seem like a misanthrope’s paradise, this idea of living off the land, seeing off anybody who might look as if they want to mess with you... And being armed. But there are more primal things on the go here for our two protagonists. They really are at rock bottom, a place where having their shoes stolen could mean death. They sleep out in the open, fearful of being discovered by the feral gangs, clinging to each other for basic heat. Finding tinned fruit somewhere, or a dried-out windfall apple, is a great blessing for them. Hardship is a day-to-day reality, and both man and boy are aware that they may not be alive to see the next week, the next month. Where it really got me was in its depiction of constant, terrible hunger, a state of being most readers of this book simply will not be aware of.
The disaster which strikes the United States, and presumably the world beyond it, is never specified. It has certainly involved great heat, though there’s no suggestion that nuclear missiles were involved. There are piles of ash everywhere; cities are full of dried-out corpses like fish left to cure, grinning at the shattered world. Their cars, half-melted in roads turned into molten tarmacadam. There are no birds, no insects, tree leaves crumbling to powder in your grasp. There’s a curious suggestion that cows are now extinct, and a fantasy of the man’s that perhaps life has survived deep, deep beneath the sea, with gargantuan squid zooming over the ocean floor.
Although this unspecified doom has tones of something biblical in it, which suits McCarthy’s style, I did think this was too simple, something of a cop-out. The author has spoken in interviews of the fact that Yellowstone national park is due to blow sometime soon, which seems to account for this vision of an American apocalypse, but perhaps not a global one, and perhaps not a herald of the utter social breakdown we see here, either.
McCarthy’s style is an oddity; he dispenses with the apostrophes on things like “can’t” and “don’t”, but is happy to put them in for “he’d” and “they’d”. There are no quotation marks around speech, nothing to demarcate it out of the usual flow of narrative. This doesn’t upset us so much as you might think, though; the dialogue is so stark and clean that you’re never tripped up by it or unsure of what you’re reading, or whose mouth it came from. Just for jolly, I wondered how McCarthy got on with his early editors, driving them to distraction with his crazy punctuation. Probably sat and stared them out I guess, before suddenly hitting them with some sparse, blank descriptions, sending them diving beneath their desks.
It’s not all 4/4 beats, though. What I like best about McCarthy is that he splashes lots of colour here and there, bright and vibrant among the grey of the ash and the constant patter of drizzle in the book. These moments come in the quiet of the night, as the man watches over his sleeping son. So we get things which are rare and beautiful and scary, like:
“The frailty of everything (was) revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.”
And these are always just when you weren’t expecting them. Strange, wonderful phrases creep in, something building up in the author, running through each and every scene. If he wanted to show us expressions of something primal but also beautiful, he has succeeded.
There are hardly any women on this road. The father did have a wife, and his boy a mother, but she is only present in the briefest of flashbacks. She decides to take one of the most rational choices presented in the book, knowing that there is no future and that any fate she encounters in the open will be worse than the one she designs for herself. I’ve read here and there that McCarthy is a mysoginist, but this is totally unfair, for me. The story is just fine when it’s pared down to these two characters. And in No Country For Old Men, McCarthy’s women are the ones with heart, the ones who do the right thing, with only the men concerned with savagery, greed, the randomness of violent death.
I’m a big fan of No Country For Old Men, but something which disappointed me a little in that book was its gun-coveting aspect. It’s something we read a lot in American fiction, and it seems to be something to admire in some novels, given some reviews I see on Amazon and other places – something you might mark out of ten, how realistic the “tech” descriptions are. The weapons and the calibre of the barrel and the ammunition and what it could do to you.
This is mercifully absent from The Road, although there are a couple of moments of gun violence in the book. This precious object is simply referred to as, “the gun”, “the pistol” and a “nickel-plated revolver”. Relief. That’s all we needed to know. They start off with two bullets in it. One gets used. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think of what the father’s plans might be for the final one, when things get a little too grim.
Something that irritated me was this pair’s insistence on hitting the road at all times, moving on from places where they might live in security and comfort for the foreseeable future. They have the fear of the gangs, of course, and the knowledge that just as they have come across places of refuge and sustenance, then at some point, so will the cannibals. However, I would imagine that freezing and starving to death are more critical concerns, so it seemed bizarre that these two should take off from almost surreal places of heat, light, cleanliness and large supplies of mouth-watering tinned foods in order to take their chances on the blasted landscape, and all its constant reminders of the immanence of death.
There’s horror to be found on this journey. “Once something goes into your head, it never comes out,” the father tells his son. You will feel the same way about some of things you will read in The Road. The cannibal gangs are a source of real terror, a presence which forces the man and boy to ditch everything they have in order to flee from these monsters. Although I picture the arseless chaps and the crazy punk hairstyles of the baddies out of Mad Max 2 when considering such post-apocalyptic crazymen, the reality is much scarier, more prosaic. You could easily see that boorish neighbour of yours as one of these boiler-suited creatures, eyeing you and your loved ones up with unspeakable desires. There’s a moment of dialogue between the father and one such specimen they encounter that was all the more chilling for its ring of truth and reality. “You won’t do it,” this person says to the father, who is holding the pistol on him. “Know what I think? I think you’re chickenshit.”
There’s another scene in a forest, a campfire tableau in which what is witnessed is spelled out, nothing implied, nothing hinted at. It puts the reader in the same mental zone as the father when he thinks that he might never be able to speak again. There’s something else they stumble upon in the cellar of a house which is almost as bad; there are simple, stark tokens of moral terror and malice they find on the way. Skulls left on gateposts, a freshly severed head left in a cake jar in a looted shop.
Unforgettable images of horror and degradation, sure, but they help us to root for the man and the boy as they journey towards a coastline and a sea without any blue left in it. There is something within the pair of them – that the father nurtures in the son – that none of these images, encouters and hardships can corrupt or damage. Always, the man refers to the boy “carrying the fire” within him, no matter what happens. Later, when the boy begs his father not to kill a poor man who tries to steal their precious shopping trolley, we come to understand that “the fire” is not rage or desire or cunning, but simple decency. Something that keeps them warm at night, huddled together, cowering away from the storm. A quality the boy thanks God for, simply because he doesn’t know how else to express this feeling.
The Road may not be for everyone, and it’s maybe not the best thing to pick up at the airport before you head off on your holidays. Whatever your tastes, you won’t forget it. A simple tale, and a great achievement. I loaned it out immediately, as soon as I finished it. You’ll like this, I said. You have to read this.
Anyway, back to the top: I got to where I was going that night. Even after I finally got off the train I had one more journey to take, a very slow one by car across ice and fresh snow. We went into a skid as we took a turn off the motorway into a minor road. There was nothing hurried about this unforeseen maneouvre, nothing dramatic, just a car moving its own way in its own time, staggering across those empty lanes like a drunk after closing time. We were glad there was no-one else on the road with us, and I hugged her tight that night, much later.