Published on July 22, 2007
"The Road" won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
By Cormac McCarthy
Published by Random House
Available at Asia Books around US$15
Reviewed by James Eckardt
Cormac McCarthy is 74 and his last novel, "No Country for Old Men", reflected some of the concerns of a twilight life: how to maintain love and bring lasting good into a world riddled with evil. It is a theme he continues with his new novel, "The Road", his 10th and perhaps his best.
McCarthy is one of the great American prose stylists. His work can be divided into three phases. First came the lush descriptive Southern novels with their echoes of William Faulkner, culminating in "Suttree" (1979), and then the stark brutally violent novels of the Southwestern desert country: "Blood Meridian" (1985) and the Border Trilogy.
And now comes this slim, taut tale of a nuclear winter in post-apocalyptic America, dominated by the image of an unnamed father and son endlessly pushing a grocery cart of scavenged provisions south along a deserted highway, seeking the warmth of the Gulf of Mexico and shelter from marauding bands of killers and cannibals.
Whereas his masterpiece "Blood Meridian" focused on a son who fled his father to join just such a nihilistic band - American filibusters into Mexico in the 1850s - "The Road" is the story of a loving father desperate to shield his eight-year-old son from death and the evil of men.
The prose is terse and elegiac:
"They passed through the city at noon the day following. He kept the pistol to hand on the folded tarp on top of the cart. He kept the boy close to his side. The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the streets caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day."
They make their relentless way south, fighting off cold and hunger, scavenging for anything useful in deserted farmhouses and barns and shops. Much has been picked over by bands of survivors before them. The father is on constant lookout for danger on the road: "the bad guys".
Every so often they find a treasure, like the boy's first can of Coca Cola. But mostly it's a hard slog through a bleak and devastated land: burned woods, ruined farms, deserted villages. Fellow survivors inspire nothing but terror. The man and boy awake to see a ragtag band decked out in red scarves, marching four abreast down the highway.
"An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks ... The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of truck springs in some crude forge upcountry. The boy lay with his face in his arms, terrified. They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ill-clothed against the cold and fitted in dog collars and yoked each to each. All passed on."
These are "the bad guys". Father and son are in search of the "good guys". Born after the nuclear disaster and his mother's suicide, the son is stoic, innocent, compassionate, and full of curiosity about the world. He tells his father:
"There are other good guys. You said so."
"So where are they?"
"Who are they hiding from?"
"From each other."
"Are there lots of them?"
"We don't know."
With no food for days, the father and son stumble on through snowstorms over scorched mountains and plains. They are saved by the discovery of an underground survivalist shelter in the backyard of an old plantation house. For some precious days, they feast on the bounty of pre-war America: ham, biscuits, coffee, canned pears.
At last they reach the coast, not the glorious blue spectacle the boy had been led to believe.
"Out there was the gray beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it. Like the desolation of some alien sea breaking on the shores of a world unheard of. Out on the tidal flats lay a tanker half careened. Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash."
Here is played out the endgame of their long struggle to find "the good guys". The ending offers a transcendence new in McCarthy's work - the notion that, in Faulkner's works, "Man will not merely endure, he will prevail."
Dedicated to McCarthy's young son, "The Road" won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
James Eckardt's eighth book, "Singapore Girl", published by Monsoon Books, is on sale at Kinokuniya, Bookazine and Asia Books.