I don’t have a very pleasant history with Cormac McCarthy. If books are like friends, Cormac McCarthy is one of those friends who is part of your circle mostly because your other friends get along with him. Since you don’t want to give up all the rest of your friends, you make up your mind to tolerate him, even though you try not to make eye contact with him too often and you never laugh at his jokes. Either that or he is that friend that you like well enough but avoid because at some point in the past something awkward happened: you declared your undying love to him or vented at him rudely or played a drinking game that ended in nudity. McCarthy is one of the writers who was absolutely revered in my MFA program. I’m sure that he is revered in most MFA programs – because, of course, he is a very good writer. But my MFA program was very testosterone-driven, and Cormac McCarthy was one of its gods.
If Hemingway and Faulkner could conceive a child, that child would be Cormac McCarthy. Most of the time, McCarthy’s syntax is Hemingway’s and his diction is Faulkner’s. He’s fond of combining independent clauses with conjunctions but without commas – like Hemingway – to suggest a worldview in which thoughts keep piling up on top of other thoughts. No idea is subordinate to any other idea, and no pause is needed (or allowed) between one thought and the next. McCarthy also has a gift – like Faulkner’s – for the invented compound adjective and for the spine-chillingly accurate choice of obscure words (e.g. “the intestate earth” ) that manage to be, hands down, the best possible word in a given context. He is an aficionado of the intentional fragment. The little red and green squiggly lines in Microsoft Word must have a field day with this guy.
McCarthy’s novels are always bleak (she says with complete confidence, having now read two of them), but this novel brings bleakness to a new level. I don’t think I have ever read a book or spent time with a piece of art that was as bleak and dispiriting as The Road. Bleakness doesn’t usually bother me; in fact, it often bores me, especially in an extreme or far-fetched situation. Bleakness bores me almost as much as unadulterated happiness does; the animating force of art, in my opinion, is the juxtaposition of two or more tones or textures or levels of energy. This novel is about a man and his son. At right around the time the son was born, the earth suffered some kind of catastrophe that is never named specifically but that seems to be nuclear in nature. The years directly following the catastrophe are told only in brief flashbacks. By the time the novel begins, the man’s wife is dead, and the man and the boy have left their home. They are heading “south,” but the place they reach is the coast, so presumably they were aiming for the Gulf of Mexico? I was never entirely sure of the geography of this book. I never had a good handle on the boy’s age either – he might be eight? Or ten? He knows how to read and how to swim, and he asks questions about God and that sort of thing. Eight is my best guess: eight or nine.
The world they walk through is, of course, a stinking, dangerous, barren hellhole. Most of the human race is dead. Of the humans that survive, many have become cannibals and have united with other cannibals to terrorize others – Darwinism forced to a horrific extreme. Of the structures that still remain, most have been completely looted, and some are booby traps set up by the cannibals to lure people into their clutches. Others are the cannibals’ homes. This world requires constant suspicion; the man teaches the boy that he must never, ever trust anyone.
Stylistically, this novel is an absolute masterpiece. McCarthy’s prose is artful and heartbreaking. He avoids interior punctuation in almost every sentence, preferring either long compound sentences in which clauses pile upon clauses with no apparent control or sentence fragments that reflect the nature of human thought. This book’s greatest strength is its unending tension between bleakness and beauty. When we read this passage in a course I was teaching recently – “The country was looted, ransacked, ravaged. Rifled of every crumb. The nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of morning had a terrible silence to it. Like a dawn before a battle. The boy’s candlecolored skin was all but translucent. With his great staring eyes he’d the look of an alien” (129) – one student commented that “candlecolored” was a great way to describe the boy not because it signaled a certain color (since candles, he pointed out, can be any color) but because it suggests that the boy is somehow melting. Essentially, the student was getting close to describing the poetic device we call the “transferred epithet” – the use of an illogical modifier that signals a secondary image that isn’t on the page but that will be evoked in the reader’s mind. This isn’t revolutionary stuff, but it’s not exactly 10th grade material, either, and this is only one example of the ways this novel pushed my students to higher levels of understanding.
Since I’ve introduced the subject of the class I was teaching, I might as well finish the story. I was teaching a class called Advanced Critical Reading at a learning center in Palo Alto. The purpose of the course was to build students’ reading skills in preparation for the SAT. The students were 8th, 9th, and 10th grades. The course followed a scripted syllabus, and I had very little input into the reading assignments. My roster changed every week. At the first class only one student was present, and she was awesome. At the second class, she had moved on to an ACT Boot Camp class, and now I had three new students, most of whom spoke English as their second language. The third week, a smirking, sneaky 8th grader joined the class. He was brilliant and snarky and never once, in the entire time he was in the course, did he make eye contact with anyone. A few weeks passed. More students left for SAT and ACT classes. More students joined us. The Road was the last novel we read, and new students kept joining us each week. Imagine if you were an ESL student, attending American schools for only your first or second year, and you signed up for a reading class at a local learning center and the first night you were in the course, you were expected to make sense of passages like this: “The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared. Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts. They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and the deader black. So cold. They talked hardly at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He’d stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle” (273).
That said, in some ways this was a great book to teach to this ever-shifting group of students. I accepted early on that no student would come away from this course with a complete understanding of this novel – there was just too much of a gulf between the students’ language skills and the complexity of the book. Once I stopped trying to push the students toward a global understanding of the book, I focused on using class time to analyze the complexity of individual sentences and paragraphs. I had them practice using intentional fragments and long series of independent clauses in their own writing. We spent a lot of time on imagery. We looked up some of McCarthy’s crazy words in the dictionary and talked about the art of choosing precisely the right word in any given situation. For example, “crozzled” (in boldface in the last paragraph) means “burnt around the edges.” Did you know that? I didn’t know that – but it’s the perfect word to describe the hearts in that sentence, no?
Here’s another passage that we discussed in class: “He got up and walked out to the road. The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolman stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his short pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt” (261). “Salitter” (in boldface) means “the essence of God.” This is such a typical Cormac McCarthy move: to tell his readers that the essence of God is evaporating from the face of the earth, but to do so in a way that almost no one will understand.
I would love to teach this book in a course called “The Literature of Suffering.” We could read this novel side by side with The Grapes of Wrath (which, in a number of subtle, strange ways, it resembles), King Lear, some Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, the book of Job, maybe The Painted Bird, maybe Medea and/or the Oresteia, maybe One Day in the Life of August Denisovich, definitely some poetry, and at least one of Eugene O’Neill’s plays.
Always haunting the edges of this novel is the idea of suicide. Of course the man considers suicide. He even makes the boy promise to kill himself if anything should ever happen to his father. The man sees suicide as one final moment of self-advocacy and control in a world where the only things that control anyone are violence and hunger and power and fear. The man carries a gun and rations his dwindling supply of bullets, and the ongoing count of how many bullets are left in the gun is one of this novel’s most effective forms of suspense. I must have written ten or twelve times in the margins: WHY DOESN’T HE JUST KILL HIMSELF? I even shared this question with my students and said that if I were in the man’s situation, I would kill myself. Yes, I made a pro-suicide statement to a roomful of middle and high school students: this is pretty much the worst thing a teacher can do without actually taking off her clothes. But I WOULD – wouldn’t you? If you say no, it’s probably because you haven’t read the dead baby scene yet. Just saying.
I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but, to its credit, I don’t think this is a book that is meant to be “enjoyed.” It is meant to be respected, and I do respect it. It is meant to grip the reader viscerally, and it most certainly does that. Perhaps most of all, it is meant to be sealed in a waterproof, fireproof, bombproof container and stashed away for thousands of years so that someday, when humans of the future study the archaeology of the early 21st century, they will see that we had sophisticated thoughts like they do, that we represent our feelings in art the way they do, that we are ridden with guilt and fear about our complicity in a seemingly-inevitable destruction of our planet in some way or another. This book would make a great Lascaux cave painting.
Oh, and P.S. In my notes on this book, I found this statement: “This book reminds me of the David Sedaris essay where all the students in an adult beginning French class try to use their rudimentary French skills to explain Easter to a Muslim.” I have absolutely no idea what I meant by that.