Literary Shelf

Cormac McCarthy and his 'The Road'

Cormac McCarthy, the much-acclaimed American novelist, passed away in his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico of natural causes on June 13 at the age of 89. Tributes are pouring in hailing him as one of the greatest writers of America. Critics have compared his images with that of Steinbeck and his style of writing with Hemmingway. Some have even sensed the influence of William Faulkner in his novels.

McCarthy wrote 12 novels: The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, Suttree, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, No Country for Old Men, The Road, The Passenger and Stella Maris; two plays, five screenplays, and three short stories. His novels reveal to us the depths that mankind can descend to and also the mountains that it can climb.

McCarthy is known for his bleakly violent and apocalyptic visions expressed in his unique writing style. Saul Bellow praised his “absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences”.

In the novels, The Orchard Keeper, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossings, and No Country for Old Men, he mostly dealt with the lives of the marginalized against the backdrop of the communities and landscapes of the American Southwest that he was familiar with.

Many critics praise Blood Meridian— the scorched-earth epic that narrates the violent tale of a teenage wanderer with nihilism’s triumph over morality running as an undercurrent—as his most brilliant novel. The noted literary critic, Harold Bloom, describing it as “not only the ultimate western” but “the ultimate dark dramatization of violence”, places McCarthy along with three other contemporaries, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon, who in his opinion touched the sublime.

However, it is his The Road that appeals to me the most, for it is a profoundly moving story of a father and son’s journey carried out in desperate tenacity along the desolate landscape to get to the warmth of the coast. It is with these two protagonists that the novel explores the themes of moral conflict, survival, hope, and redemption—all against the backdrop of utter lack of hope and total devastation. It is indeed a pen portrait of the worst and the best that mankind is capable of!

It is pretty interesting to know how the seed of this novel germinated: On a trip to El Paso, Texas around 2005 with his son of four years, one night McCarthy looked out of their hotel room and saw a sleepy town in whose silence he could only hear the whistling of past running trains. It is in that eerie silence that he saw in his mind’s eye burning hills and everything being laid waste sometime in the future and wondered about his little boy. And it is this image that he told Oprah Winfrey in his interview with her as the origin of The Road.

And thus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road happens at an undated, post-apocalyptic time in the future, probably in the United States, during which the world as we know it has ended for an undefined reason. All that is left behind is a vast cloud of ash enveloping Earth that made “the track of the dull sun moving unseen beyond the murk”. It is in this cold and grey landscape, that a father and son, both unnamed, take to the road on foot with a hope to survive, come what may.

The road on which they journey with a grocery cart that is filled with their belongings and supplies for the journey indeed symbolizes their drive to keep moving and keep surviving, unmindful of the circumstances. Father and son share a deep bond of love. As they journey along the road “in that cold autistic dark”, they replenish their supplies by scavenging food and clothing on the way from the ruins of homes, farms, and towns.

The father-son relationship is shown in the beginning itself as something holy. The man tells the boy: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” The man tells the boy stories of justice and courage hoping that they will keep the fire alive in the boy. Equally, the boy exhibits faith in the man and strives to carry the fire. But as the journey advances, he, assuming himself and his father are good guys, begins to question the man whenever he does something which is contrary to this assumption.

They indeed, encounter horror after horror, yet won’t lose their humanity. On the way, they come across a few cannibals who ambushed a few people and kept them alive as food. They somehow manage to escape the same fate. As things turned out to be okay and as they keep journeying forward, the boy asks:

We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not. …
Even if we are starving?
No, we wouldn’t.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

All through their journey we witness the father and son encountering moral conflict. On the road, they come upon another traveller, named Ely. At the insistence of the boy, father agrees to share food with him, but tells the boy that he cannot stay with them for long. The next day as they get ready to part ways, the boy gives Ely some food which his father reluctantly approves. For, it risks their journey’s primary goal of survival.

As they continue their journey to the south, they come across towns and landscapes that turned skeletons of their past. They see empty houses, vehicles, and bones of animals and humans alike. Finally, on arriving at the coast, the boy, seeing the grey-looking ocean, turns aghast, for he was expecting it to be blue. But both of them however swim in the ocean which lifts up their spirits.

On returning to their camp, they notice that their belongings have been stolen. On catching the thief, father makes him strip his clothes and leaves him on the road to freeze. The boy protests it. But the father chides him: “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.” The boy, who by then acquired a strong moral compass, carrying the fire, says to his father, “Yes, I am. I am the one.” At it, the father, leaving the clothes on the road for the thief to pick up, seeks redemption solely for the sake of his son to forgive him.

Their journey harps on hope in many ways—holding on to hope, losing hope and finding hope again, and so on. In his concern for protecting the child, the man is determined to survive through his rapidly deteriorating health. Indeed, he clings to hope so steadfastly that when the boy, seeing another boy walking alone, asks “Do you think he was lost?”, he replies:

No, I don’t think he was lost…
I’m scared that he was lost.
I think he’s all right
But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?
Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.

Realizing that he won’t be around for long, the man prepares the son to carry on: “A lot of bad things have happened, but we are still here… that’s a pretty good story. You need to keep going. You have to carry the fire”.

Eventually, the man dies. But his hope for goodness proves right. As the boy stays with the body of his dead father, ‘goodness’ in the form of a saviour comes to him with a shotgun in hand inviting him into his family … perhaps into a holy commune where its holy mother ensures the boy about the breath of God passing “from man to man through all of time …”

The novel, which is as humane as it is harrowing, thus comes to an end with a flickering hope that good guys are out there to redeem humanity and eliminate the cannibalistic and inhumane instincts of others.

Goodness is here aplenty, and it is always worth fighting for survival, no matter the circumstances— “This is what good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up” —is perhaps what McCarthy wants to convey through the father and son’s journey.

As the Booker Prize winner John Banville said, in his death, the literary fraternity lost “a giant figure” of the contemporary literary landscape.


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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