Desolation row

Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
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Cormac McCarthy's latest novel, "The Road," is a postapocalyptic horror story in which a father and son try to survive the desolate world.

Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' would be pure misery if not for its stunning beauty
As our brimstone preacher of the world's natural beauty and the iniquities of man, Cormac McCarthy hasn't so much tempered his Old Testament voice over the years as he has redirected it. There are the telltale signatures: the quoteless dialogue, the weird vocabulary ("isocline," "torsional"), the narrative of outrage occasionally outdone by some small piece of redemptive glory. "It's a mystery," a crazy old prophet tells the boy in his magisterial 1985 novel, "Blood Meridian." "You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow." No need for four-dollar words in that little speech.
No American writer since Faulkner has wandered so willingly into the swamp waters of deviltry and redemption; the best of McCarthy's "later" novels - "All the Pretty Horses" and "The Crossing" - have suggested a turn toward some kinder piece of naturalism. But the problem with a talent so large-spirited and idiosyncratic is that it lends itself to parody. In his 2005 novel, "No Country for Old Men," he delivered a bone-chilling morality play about a psychopath stalking the good guys with a cattle gun; the scant hope of the novel belonged to a reactionary sheriff who longed for the old days and his wife's cooking.
Sheriff Bell would be a whole lot sadder still were he around to witness the world of "The Road," a postapocalyptic horror story set to a dirge. Unfolding in a spartan, precise narrative that mirrors the bleakness of its nuclear winter, the novel follows a nameless man and his son through the wrenching specifics of trying to live through one day, then the next, for no reason beyond each other. It's Beckett at its most gritty: You-must-go-on-I-can't-go-on, with ash in the skies and dead oceans and cannibals roaming the ruined earth.
Yeah, the cannibals got to me too. A postapocalyptic novel can obviously only take you so far, and there are moments in "The Road" that don't seem so much preposterous (granted, we would have to eat something) as they do hokey - I kept seeing zombies in my mind's eye, which is not a good image recommendation for serious literature. Still, beyond the inherent technical difficulties of concocting the unthinkable, McCarthy has rendered a greater and more subtle story that makes "The Road" riveting. The exterior action is swift and direct: How far will they get that day? Will they find food or escape the treacherous wind on a freezing beach at night? This essentially spare and unsparing landscape carves the way for the more important interior story: As the man's memories leave him - he abandons a photograph of his beloved wife, now dead, and then regrets his action - the essence of life itself begins to leak away.
What happened to get us in this fix is rightly never addressed. Instead we are thrust into McCarthy's bleak and sonorous world, where "the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." The man may have been a doctor in another life, but there are only hints at the world before - the boy, too, is of indeterminate age in a weatherless atmosphere that may be October. The man's consciousness, the perspective from which the novel unfolds, is caught in a daily struggle between caring and letting go. In order to survive, he has to give up on the lure of the past; in order to find a reason to survive, he has to preserve it. This is the dilemma of grace and despair at the heart of "The Road," manifest in the love - call it godly or human - between father and son.
To call "The Road" a departure from McCarthy's previous work seems a ludicrous understatement - what else to say about the end of the world? But he has written this last waltz with enough elegant reserve to capture what matters most. And he renders the ruined heartbreak of a dying world: a place where not just the grass is gone, but the smell of the grass - a place where there may be no witness left to see or care.

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