“He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and death.”- Cormac McCarthy, The Road.
If it has been said, then so must the narrator of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road dream the most perilous dreams: a dark cave inhabited by a “translucent” beast with eyes “white and sightless like the eggs of spiders”, or the way the blistered feet of Gods in tattered robes crack the dry surface of barren riverbeds. In short, dreams of inevitability and extinction, of person and civilization.
Faulkner's south served as the backdrop of many of McCarthy’s earliest works, but it was with Blood Meridian that McCarthy struck out on his own, constructing his own view of America after having left his native Tennessee (too close to Mississippi) and followed the dried bloody trail of manifest destiny. The Border Trilogy followed and brought us out of the west and into the atomic age. And then…nothing. For seven years (not the first time he vanished), McCarthy produced no new work and continued his staunch avoidance of print and academia. And then something curious happened, McCarthy reappeared and released mean little genre-novel, No Country For Old Men (NCFOM). Gone were the languid descriptions of sun-bleached landscapes and the evening's redness (been there, done that), instead, NCFOM, was a work of pure cruelty, in simplicity and message, consisting of little else than voice, word, and verb. (Click here for my thoughts on NCFOM). A play quickly followed, and then, not even a year later, came his most recent (Pulitzer Prize winning) book, The Road. The Road was a book familiar to what had come before, but, implemented in the style and immediacy of language, was more similar to NCFOM than Blood Meridian.
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”-Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Rarely does a writer, particularly a writer of a signature style, reinvent themselves. McCarthy has done so twice now in subsequent works, once for NCFOM and once for The Road. As beautiful a writer as McCarthy has been, tenderness has been in spare (if any) supply. Then again, until a few years ago, McCarthy never had children (The Road is dedicated to the 76-year-old author’s 8 year old son). Is it cliché to think that something as iconic as a sleeping child could soften even the most calloused hands? In MCarthy’s case, apparently not. The Road is the survival story of a nameless narrator and his young son as they attempt to navigate their way through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in an effort to make it to The Gulf of Mexico and hopefully (hope itself a sign of danger) warmer weather (the ecological disasters of nuclear winter beginning to take hold). This is not a happy story, but it is not a story that lacks optimism. McCarthy’s narrator, through sheer force of will, would see his son survive in a world that is rapidly dying. Why? Given the environment, such a plan goes beyond simple paternal obligation (the mother, having given up a long time ago to suicide). Where is the logic behind such an act? The fact being that there is no logic to such behavior, that such an effort reeks of irrationality, which, for McCarthy, is a break through. McCarthy has always been a staunch rationalist; one who has yet to make up his mind about God and who would rather spend his time with scientists and philosophers as opposed to the solipsistic world of other writers (see, Oprah). Whether it was Judge Holden dismantling religion through geology, or, his most recent creation, Anton Chigurh, explaining the cold reality of the coin flip, McCarthy has always been drawn to characters who are rationalists. And it is this rationality, the cold facts of cost-benefit, that is firmly rooted in the American soul; for Americans (children of the enlightenment) can rationalize anything (genocide of indigenous people, a war in a secular
One could reasonably infer that such a change of purpose is due to the arrival of child, a sobering but inspiring thought that even one as jaded as McCarthy sees something worth salvaging in a desolate and shattered world. And he isn’t going down without a fight.