Cormac McCarthy has offered us nightmares before. In Outer Dark (1968) he conjured a twisted version of the Nativity in which a child is conceived in incest, abandoned in the woods, sought for months by his mother, and eventually murdered in front of his father by a man who slits his throat. In Child of God (1973) McCarthy imagined a serial murderer and necrophiliac who abducts his unwitting victims mid-coitus from parked cars and drags them into an underground lair, where he lays them out on stone shelves for his nefarious pleasure.
In Blood Meridian (1985) McCarthy followed the barbarous work of a group of bounty hunters roaming the Mexican-American borderlands in the late 1840s, collecting scalps for money and eventually killing any and all who crossed their path. Blood Meridian is the most unsparing treatment of American genocide and moral depravity yet written, an anti-Western that flouts nearly every convention of the genre. In it McCarthy created his most monstrous character, the Judge, a prophet of war everlasting, a serial rapist and murderer of children, a figure of such demonic presence that he can only be compared, as Harold Bloom said, to the great Shakespearean villains. ‘It makes no difference what men think of war,’ the Judge declares. ‘War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be.’ And later: ‘If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.’
So it seems almost inevitable that at last, with The Road, McCarthy has delivered us to the day after Judgment Day. The Judge’s philosophy has reached its terminus. The world as we know it has been consumed in fire. All is reduced to shades of grey. Man and his tools of war have almost succeeded in extinguishing the race. In a landscape drifted with ash and devoid of colour, a father and his son walk towards the coast, pushing a shopping cart that contains all they have in the world, trying to elude roving bands of cannibals. Another winter inland will kill them, and perhaps they will die anyway. But there is hope in movement.
Hope in movement is an abiding American belief, and one McCarthy has explored at great length, particularly in his Border Trilogy. That hope is often dashed when his heroes encounter trials they could not have imagined before they set out. Some readers have complained that the trilogy’s first volume, All the Pretty Horses (1992), is just a dime Western dressed up in pretty language. It is certainly the most romantic of McCarthy’s novels, a coming-of-age story with a likeable cowboy protagonist, John Grady Cole, who shoots and knifes his way out of trouble in Mexico. Or who, to put it differently, moves classically from innocence to hard-bitten realism, even a kind of cynicism. In Cities of the Plain, the trilogy’s final volume (The Crossing is the second), that cynicism is redeemed by John Grady’s incessant attraction to animals and people that are somehow damaged or vulnerable; nothing else much moves him.
But we know what happens to protectors of the meek and innocent, at least outside pulp Westerns. When he tries to save the life of an epileptic Mexican prostitute, John Grady gets both himself and the prostitute killed. Anyone who assumed that the romanticism of All the Pretty Horses was the final word on John Grady did not understand that McCarthy was working according to James Baldwin’s definition of a successful novel, in which the novelist ‘walks the reader to the guillotine without his knowing it’. In the Border Trilogy, McCarthy borrowed the standard tropes of the Western – taciturn cowboys adventuring with their loyal horses – but bent them to his own purpose in ways that ultimately turned the myths of the Western inside out.
He has always been something of a genre novelist, from his early work in Southern Gothic to No Country for Old Men, his 2005 dalliance with the noir thriller. It’s just that the genre is never quite the same when he’s finished with it. ‘Books are made out of books,’ he said in the only extended interview he’s ever given. So we sniff out his (grand) influences. The list is now recited by rote: Faulkner, Melville, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, the Old Testament, Shakespeare. Partly this is a matter of style. Some of his best work has been written in prose which, in its baroque and high-flown formulations, is like nothing else written in English in our time. This is a not untypical passage from Blood Meridian:
They wandered the borderland for weeks seeking some sign of the Apache. Deployed upon that plain they moved in a constant elision, ordained agents of the actual dividing out the world which they encountered and leaving what had been and what would never be alike extinguished on the ground behind them. Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.
‘Crenellated heat’: this is a perfect evocation of a desert shimmer, and unusual. ‘Mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was’: it’s hard to resist the irony of evoking the epoch before words with a string of polysyllabic ones. Yet passages such as these send critics hunting for the imprecise word, the excessively grandiose metaphor. Instances can easily be found. One of my favourites, from Suttree (1979), McCarthy’s very funny novel about a ‘reprobate scion of doomed Saxon clans’ in 1950s Knoxville: ‘These lone figures going through the naked streets swore at the cold and something like the sun struggled at ten o’clock sleazy and heatless beyond the frozen pestilential miasma that cloaked the town.’ ‘Naked streets’, OK, if a little hackneyed; ‘frozen pestilential miasma’, maybe; but a ‘sleazy’ sun that’s also heatless? The game is pointless, like wishing you could peel away a few drops and strands from a Pollock painting. With some artists, grandiosity is both the price and the payoff, and for sheer dexterity and inventiveness with English prose there is no contemporary American novel that stands beside Blood Meridian.
There are other briefs against McCarthy. A chilling detachment from the psychology of his characters. A dearth of well imagined women. An obsessive attraction, bordering on glorification, to blood and violence. A reliance on gnomic utterances by cameo prophets. Enough evidence can be marshalled on each of these counts to convict him of the overarching crime of not being Henry James. Of this he is guilty. His novels are not novels of the indoors, of domestic arrangements. No other American writer of the last thirty years has been as meticulous in his treatment of the work men once did outdoors with their hands; and the women who populate his hyper-masculine world are generally the doomed objects of a male fantasy, or cynical obstacles to that fantasy. His most sustained account of intimacy – at least before The Road – involves a boy and the wolf he captures and returns to Mexico in The Crossing. The subjects that obsess McCarthy are the notion of fate, the problem of evil in the world, and the inescapability of death. He has spent forty years writing as if he were trying to expand the Old Testament. With this latest novel he appears to want to build a bridge to the New.
Much of The Road reads like a distillation and restatement of the main themes from McCarthy’s previous novels. Images he has used before recur almost verbatim: razorous shoulder blades, the corrugated look of ploughed earth. In McCarthy there is almost always a time before and a time after, a lost world and a baffling or disappointing new one, though the demarcation has never been as stark as it is here. Bits of philosophical rumination from previous novels are reworked and reworded. This is from Cities of the Plain: ‘Men have in their minds a picture of how the world will be. How they will be in that world. The world may be many different ways for them but there is one world that will never be and that is the world they dream of.’ And this from The Road, the father thinking to himself on a visit to his childhood home: ‘This is where I used to sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be.’ Noting repetitions of certain images in McCarthy’s work, James Wood remarked in the New Yorker that ‘such repetition is a sign not of haste but of a style that has achieved consistency.’ It is difficult not to think the same about the ideas McCarthy expresses.
This time, the time after begins with ‘a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions’ at 1.17 a.m. on a day in a nameless year. The ritual argument about fate or free will occurs between the man and his wife. He calls them ‘survivors’. She calls them ‘the walking dead in a horror film’. He argues for carrying on, for the sake of the son she delivered after the blast. She advocates suicide. Their dialogue is excruciating:
We used to talk about death, she said. We dont anymore. Why is that?
I dont know.
It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.
I wouldnt leave you.
I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.
Death is not a lover.
Oh yes he is.
And so the man takes to the road with the child in a quest that reads like a religious nightmare. Most of the writing takes the form of statements of their progress that have none of the ornamentation we’ve come to expect from McCarthy, with only the occasional flourish, usually to render a flashback:
He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out for ever.
Occasionally the man and the boy encounter some new horror: a wall decorated with decapitated heads, a basement full of slaves awaiting death at the hands of cannibals, ‘a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit’. Not only are things and the names of things passing towards oblivion, so too are all forms of human decency. The world has gone to hell.
Through all the horror, the boy emerges as a force of purity, a kind of child saint. He urges his father to share their dwindling food supply with fellow refugees the father would just as soon leave for dead. The boy recoils at the idea that there may be instances in which they’ll have to kill to remain alive themselves. In order to carry on at all, the father must bring himself to believe that the child is the final living plea for the idea of God: ‘If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’
McCarthy buttresses this view with bits of physical description and laconic dialogue. When the man washes the boy’s hair he does so ‘like some ancient anointing’. When they resume their journey after a bad night’s sleep they appear ‘slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep’. The boy repeatedly seeks assurance that they are ‘the good guys’ and that they are carriers of the fire, a fire that at first appears literal – in the form of a lighter – and later comes to seem figurative in a way not quite explained. And when the gnomic prophet appears, this time in the form of a haggard old man barely alive on the road, the father and the old man argue over who exactly the boy is, and the father says for the first time what we’ve come to suspect, what he must force himself to believe in order to carry on:
When I saw that boy I thought that I had died.
You thought he was an angel?
I didnt know what he was. I never thought to see a child again. I didnt know that would happen.
What if I said that he’s a god?
The old man shook his head. I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men can’t live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
The most curious thing about the novel is McCarthy’s refusal to referee this argument: perhaps what both men say is true. Perhaps the boy is a god; perhaps the world would be better off without gods. We might even assume that the end of the world as we knew it came about through warring interpretations of who god was and how he meant us to live.
While some have found the novel’s ending unaccountably hopeful, it raises more questions than it answers. The father more and more comes to envy the dead. His final exchanges with his son are touching, but he seems to welcome release from the burden of travelling with and caring for the last god on earth, even if that god is his own blood. It is a troubling thought: but then again, no more troubling than the story of the god and the boy of the New Testament. There the betrayal was in bringing death on the son for the larger goal of redeeming humanity; here the betrayal is to leave him living in a world seemingly beyond redemption. And who’s to say which is worse?