Post-apocalyptic fiction in its postwar versions has at least two common threads. One is, they tend to be cautionary tales. The most common of course being the threat of nuclear annihilation. There are too many examples of that to even list. But others themes include, “it’s not nice to mess around with germs” (“28 Days Later”, for example), and “watch out for the unintended effects of technology” (Stephen King’s recent “Cell”).
Another thread is the quality of the infrastructure left behind. There is usually something left behind of interest. Henry Bemis in “Time Enough At Last” has his books as well as food and shelter; the survivors in “The Stand” have ready access to fully stocked supermarkets; “On The Beach” leaves fully standing cities conveniently stripped of all the rest of the people; “The Day After” has remnants of a government and a civil structure. In “Riddly Walker,” centuries after nuclear annihilation a civilization has been founded. In examples where things look especially bad much is made of how things got that way, and then move on to space travel or other high-tech solutions.
Cormac McCarthy is having none of that. In “The Road” some immense catastrophe has been visited upon North America, and probably the entire world. “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass.”
This was ten years before the novel begins, and no further mention is made of what happened or why because ultimately it doesn’t matter. Cautionary tales have no meaning when there is no future.
On the second point, the story takes place in a world reduced to virtually nothing. Every tree has been blackened, every plant reduced to ash. Nothing grows, there are no birds, insects, animals. The sun is unseen behind a ceiling of flying ash. “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Cities are blackened and molten silhouettes, dangerous to approach. Houses, stores, cars and trucks are things to be tested cautiously in case they hold food or clothing, then left behind as quickly as possible.
The two characters known only as “the man” and “the boy,” his ten year old son, work their way down a series of roads in an effort to reach the ocean, where they believe there may some kind of hope. Along the way the have stretches of near-starvation, periods of relative good fortune, and glimpses of horror that make make the raging maniacs of “28 Days Later” (a movie by the way I like very much) look like the participants at a church picnic. The only other beings alive in the dead landscape are a few other people, likely to be cannibalistic predators to be avoided at all costs.
McCarthy, master colorist, has limited himself to a palette of grey and black. The occasional glimpse of white — the water in a cascade, or shimmering on some pebbles — cuts through like a burst of light. Where “No Country for Old Men” was all plot and character with a minimal amount of atmospherics, “The Road” heads the opposite way. Dust, ash, cold, sickness and dark dominate nearly every gasping paragraph. Such plot as there is, is as linear and episodic as the title itself.
Despite this McCarthy’s as always pours out rich visual detail of the landscape, yet little is actually seen of the two main characters. All that’s revealed is that the boy’s hair is blonde. A third character shows up later and we learn, at least, that his name is Ely and he’s 90. Except that he’s probably lying. But Ely is a member of McCarthy’s Greek Chorus, sent with messages such as:
man on earth? he said.
I dont guess you would know it. You’d
just be it.
Nobody would know it.
It wouldn’t make any difference.
When you die it’s the same as if everybody
else did too.
I guess God would know it. Is that it?
There is no God.
There is no God
and we are his prophets.
But this anonymity only serves sets the deep relationship between father and son into higher relief. The less you see of them in your minds eye, the more you see them as archetypes. Ultimately the book is all about how can two people who love each other care for one another, when every other thing in the world is stripped away and they are otherwise utterly alone in the world.
The answer is deeper than you think. They have two bullets left in their gun. The ending is not what you think — McCarthy has one more mystery to bring into the light.
“…Old Men” was accused by some of being a mere “genre novel,” a point I don’t really agree with. Likewise, some already consider this a horror or science fiction novel. Amazon is marketing it against something about “Zombie Wars.” But this is no more a horror or science fiction novel than the Book of Revelations. Much more than a book about monsters or machines (of which there are none anyway), it’s about the most inner workings of those very small figures struggling through a very big and empty landscape.