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NOTICE 2: an old link, don't bother. (2/24/2017)
The novel opens in medias res with a never-named man and his son walking a once well-traveled highway. They are hurrying south to avoid the oncoming winter heightened from an apocalyptic occurrence a decade past. The total destruction of all life and the poisoning of the earth have left the small number of remaining humans devoid of all resources other than what was left over when civilization demised. This is “the pitch of some last venture at the edge of the world” (Knopf, 1st HB trade edition, ISBN 0307265439, c.2006, p.41).
The man and boy proclaim they are “the good guys” (p.65) to separate themselves from fellow survivors who have turned to humanity as a final food source. Scavenging this bitter legacy “rifled of every crumb” (p.109), there is an eerie, ghostly irony, as even in this barren, caliginous world there have been too many people, and the ones left are very, very dangerous.
Their loneliness and despair is all-pervading, yet they fight on “carrying the fire” (p.70), as they say to each other for strength and purpose. The Road stretches on like a rope pulled taut as a series of incidences are pinned to it as if it were a wet-clothing line. Random, mundane, horrific; they seem like self-contained episodes that could be jumbled in almost any sequence if it were not for the linear progression of the journey. Backstory is thrown in at inadvertent moments; quotation marks or dashes are shunned so exposition melds into dialogue; ruminations scatter throughout the novel like question marks poured from a can. The truth of personal facts is fuzzy; history as an explanation is non-existent; only endurance and fear are definite. They seem the thoughts and memories of an old man contemplated from his emeritus years. It is “the world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities” with “the names of things slowly following those things into oblivion” (p.75).
"Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is," said McCarthy in the August, 2005 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. As death is finally shelled from denial and its inevitability becomes certain like it does for the father, the focus of importance emerges narrower, yet paradoxically, the scope of things seem more universal. The repetitive exchanges between the father and son reflect this. Presented in short, skeletal bursts, and without chapter divisions, it is easy to imagine one mind in subliminal conflict. At times the boy represents fear and denial:
Other times, he is the hope of redemption:
There is never a doubt what the son means to the father, however. From the third paragraph of the novel, as he is “watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land [,] he knew only that the child was his warrant” (p.4). And through all the metaphorical, allegorical or symbolic contusions fancied upon these unnamed characters, it is a testament of McCarthy's genius that the emotional grit of this impassioned and tenacious relationship remains firmly grounded in the readers' hearts and souls.
Another interpretational character they meet is the old man Ely, a blind wanderer who speaks with such a cryptic tongue, it is easy to divine Elijah from the days of King Ahab. This biblical prophet was responsible for the slaughter of barbarians who sacrificed human victims to their heathen god Baal. By the challenge of Elijah, "the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the holocaust, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench" (Kings, 18:38). But on this road everything is reversed. “There is no God” (p.143), Ely states with flat authority. Beelzebub's minions prevail in even more horrific guise as human flesh eaters; the holocaust does not diminish; the righteous are tortured alongside their torturers. Earlier, the father says of his son that “if he is not the word of God God never spoke” (p.5). To Ely, he posits that his son is a god. “I'm past all that now,” Ely replies. “Where men cant live gods fare no better . . . To be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing” (145).
Ely's pessimism and straight refusal to God's acceptance does nothing to abate the father's devotion to his son. By the end of the novel, the father anoints the son with his final, true sacrament. “If I'm not here you can still talk to me,” he says. “You can talk to me and I'll talk to you. You'll see” (p.235). The torch has been passed. The son will “carry the fire” (p.234), burning bright with the remembrances of his dad.
Is McCarthy refuting God's existence? Maybe it's more a challenge to His claim on man's steerage. In the context of the father's actions, it seems clear that the Father of Man should never sacrifice his only begotten Son as rendered salvation to others. He should, in exchange and by example, offer Himself. In this, McCarthy stands in defiance to man's last Christian hope that Heaven is God's private hotel.
At the end, the boy talks to his father instead of God, but whether or not he's answered from beyond is suspiciously unclear.* McCarthy is not quite ready to finalize further comments on an afterlife. He seems to veil any conclusions with ambiguity, or hides the “maps of the world in its becoming” (p.241) in the “vermiculate patterns” (p.241) of his verbiage, too abstruse for his readers to discover with any confidence. Can a man only pray to live up to his ultimate “lions on the beach” as alluded by Papa a half a century ago? Are his accomplishments and advice living on through others the only immortality afforded him? Or, does “carry[ing] the fire” refer to that unexplainable presence, that élan of spiritual light “bore in a ringstick of beaten copper” (p.236) from the dripping caves of our forefathers that passes through us all ad infinitum? Can it truly be perceived and trusted if we learn to “practice” (p.235)?
McCarthy has given us “maps and mazes” (p.241) at the end of The Road.
Surely, maps and mazes for the end of the road.
* He [the son] tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he [the father or son?] did talk to him and he [the son] didn't forget (p.241). The 1st and 3rd “he” in the sentence refers to the son, but the middle “he”, I believe, can be attributed to either the son or the father. The choice, of course, alters intention drastically.
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