Flying into Vegas last night to speak at a conference hosted somewhere inside the Venetian Hotel by the Urban Land Institute, I read Cormac McCarthy’s recent novel, The Road. It’s a book I’d long wanted to read but kept putting off for some reason, and I’m glad I finally read it.
[Image: By Trevor Manternach, found during a Flickr search].
If you don’t know the book, the basic gist is that the United States – and, we infer, everything else in the world – has been annihilated in what sounds like nuclear war. But all of that is just background for the real meat of the book.
The Road follows a father and son as they walk south, starving, toward an unidentified coast. They cross mountains and prairies and forests; everything is burned, turned to ash, or obliterated. The father is coughing up blood and the skies are permanently grey.
Briefly, I’d be interested to hear, out of sheer curiosity, where other people think the book is “set” – because it sounds, at times, like the hills of New York state or even western Massachusetts; at other times it sounds like Missouri, Tennessee, parts of Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast; at other times like the Sierra Nevadas, hiking down toward the rocky shorelines just north of, say, Santa Barbara. Sometimes it sounds like Oregon.
In any case, the only glimpse we get of the war itself is this – and all spelling and punctuation in these quotations is McCarthy’s own:
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and the turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
I dont know.
Why are you taking a bath?
After this, the landscape outside is described as “scabbed” and “cauterized,” heavily covered in ash.
McCarthy memorably writes: “They sat at the window and ate in their robes by candlelight a midnight supper and watched distant cities burn.”
The wife soon gone – indeed, she’s only ever present through flashbacks – the father and son stumble south pushing their food supplies, a few toys, and some “stinking robes and blankets” in an old grocery cart. They come across Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like houses, as some bands of bearded survivors have taken to cannibalism.
Interestingly, every house seems vaguely terrifying to the young boy in a way that the dead forests and dried riverbeds simply do not. Empty houses on hills with their doors left open.
So their journey down the road continues:
By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. (…) Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.
And then they approach what appears to have been a place actually struck by those distant concussions of sound and light, the perhaps atomic bombs of an unexplained war:
Beyond a crossroads in that wilderness they began to come upon the possessions of travelers abandoned in the road years ago. Boxes and bags. Everything melted and black. Old plastic suitcases curled shapeless in the heat. Here and there the imprint of things wrested out of the tar by scavengers. A mile on and they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Take my hand, he said. I dont think you should see this.
It’s a good book. It’s not perfect; a friend of mine quipped that it ends with “a failure of nerve,” and yet the nostalgic tone of the book’s final paragraph suited me just fine.
Which just leaves us, readers of things like this, preparing in whatever small ways we can to survive some undefined possible apocalypse of our own time here, the future politicized, the reservoirs drying, the religions hording arms and the oceans full of plastic. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
Cormac McCarthy: The Road