Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"

Two days ago I stayed up late to finish The Road, McCarthy's new book about what appears to be the aftermath of nuclear winter. It has lodged in my mind as have few other books in recent years.

When I was in college we all read On the Beach, by Nevil Shute, which was not a literary novel but raised the question about ethical behavior in a world on the verge of nuclear extinction. (The movie of On the Beach spoiled the ending of the book, which pictured the main character remaining faithful to his wife even though he knows there is no future.) Then there were Mad Max and The Planet of the Apes and other end-of-world blockbuster films. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1981) was a highly-praised literary book, spectacularly imaginative in its use of a ruined language:

"Oh what we ben! and what we come to!...How cud any 1 not want to get that shyning Power back from time way back when? how cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and shining picters in the wind? How cud any 1 not want to see them shyning weals turning?"

In Riddley Walker, the Archbishop of Canterbury has become the Hard Bitchup of Cantser Belly, and no one remembers what he was. When they find an old manuscript with a reference to the crucified Saviour they have no idea what it means. This, too, has stayed with me.

The Road has none of the perverse fascination of Riddley Walker and is therefore much more harrowing and direct. The relationship between the father and the young son who are struggling to survive is fully realized in terms that are readily recognizable to the reader. It will be heralded as a story about the unquenchable power of love, and it is that, but it is more than that. Unlike Lord of the Flies it seems to hold out a shred (only a shred) of hope for human nature, or God, or something. On the very last page The Road seems to veer abruptly toward a hope that seemed almost sentimental. I may be wrong about this. What I am sure of is that the questions raised by this narrative are ultimate ones and that, for those who can tolerate it, it is a must-read for Advent.