The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

Knopf, 256 pp., $24

In the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, 16-year-old John Grady Cole sits atop a horse on a backcountry Texas trail mourning his grandfather's death and the cowboy way of life that threatens to die with him: "What [Cole] loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise."

Surveying the oeuvre of McCarthy, a similar sentiment could easily be attributed to the author himself, although his is a tough love, indeed. Since the completion of his Border Trilogy--All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998)--the evolving pastures of McCarthy's imagination have grown more vividly cruel, forcing the ardenthearted to march up to ever-wider cannons' mouths. In No Country for Old Men, a small border-town sheriff struggles to come to grips with a hideously violent, radically unmoored culture that has become inscrutable to him in the space of 40 years. "Maybe the next forty of it will bring some of em out from under the ether," he posits after a particularly senseless crime pushes him to retire and leave the conundrum to someone else. "If it ain't too late."

The Road is set several years after an unspecified apocalypse, and it is too late. Within its pages the ardenthearted ever have their work cut out for them, and the majestic prose and sprawling asides of McCarthy's earlier work have been scuttled in favor of a more taut, sparse approach, rife with tension and threat. Cannibalistic "bloodcults" roam the "cauterized terrain" that remains of America. Somewhere above the ash stratosphere "a banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp," giving way in the evenings to "blackness to hurt your ears with listening." The remnants of the consumer culture dwindle and the world becomes increasingly less hospitable to life: "The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of the things one believed to be true."

All of this McCarthy sums up as "The frailty of everything revealed at last."

Starving, forced to live as prey, an unnamed father and son push a shopping carriage filled with scraps scrounged from the ruins across the wasteland toward the west coast seeking respite from black snows, the horrors of the new world everywhere: Bodies melted into tarmac; a "charred human infant headless and gutted blackening on the spit"; the grisly aftermath of fighting off a bow-and-arrow-wielding madman with a flare gun. The precepts of an effortless middle-class life have been torn away and replaced with a single simple rule: "If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is always expect it." When the son asks, "What's the bravest thing you ever did?" the father answers, "Getting up this morning."

The only thing more fearsome than everyday living, however, is facing what the end of those days would mean. Flashbacks allude to a family suicide pact only the mother followed through on. Unwilling to allow his son to become a slave or meal (or, most likely, both), the father works to steel himself should he be forced to pull the trigger. He wonders, if the bullets run out, could he muster the fortitude necessary to crush his beloved child's skull with a rock?

Yet even as the world spirals further into Heart of Darkness territory, even as they freeze and starve and suffer, he hesitates. "He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke." And more: "There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn't about death. He wasn't sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness."

In contrast, the son displays a staunch ambivalence with regard to his own life. He has no recollection of the world as it was, only as it has become. The occasional unearthed can of Coke or tin of peaches does little to convince him of civilization's onetime greatness. Often as not, he seems to fear his father's resolve to live more than dying. Desperation can lead to inhumanity, and depravity (which he seems intuitively to understand) should be avoided even in a primitive world.

"Are we still the good guys?" the son asks whenever they pilfer food or drive off an attacker.

In order to maintain the boy's will to live, the father must hold to some level of purity and the boy must occasionally compromise and err on the side of survival. It's a perfectly rendered symbiotic relationship. "This is what the good guys do," the father tells the boy. "They keep trying. They don't give up." In seeking to convince the boy of this, he preserves his own soul; and by allowing himself to be convinced, the boy survives.

Of course, to speak such words is not to stave off despair completely. "If only my heart were stone," he laments one night as he watches his son suffer. But it is not. And that is why, despite its constant peripheral horrors, The Road is a bleak yet ultimately inspiring tale relaying unmistakable hope for human beings, even if McCarthy's work increasingly shows precious little of the same for humanity.

"People don't feel safe no more," Lacey Rawlins, Cole's compatriot in All the Pretty Horses, sighs as the boys naively set off to seek a land where rugged individualism still exists. "We're like the Comanches was two hundred years ago. We don't know what's going to show up here come daylight."

Considering where McCarthy's literary journey has taken him, and his creations over the last decade, it seems safe to say those two boys the author once dreamed up didn't know the half of it. But the heat, and the heat of the blood, that ran them remains very much the same.

Shawn Macomber is a Phillips Foundation fellow.

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