Click here to read more from Slate’s Fall Fiction Week
One begins The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s new masterpiece, awaiting the moment when the burned and ravaged deathscape that surrounds his unnamed male protagonist and the man’s young son will exhaust itself; when they’ll look around a bend or across a ridge and see color and life—a natural world they can engage with. That’s how it works in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Ernest Hemingway’s famous post-World War I short story, to which The Road seems to allude directly. Hemingway’s story is the apotheosis of a form of literary masculinity that features men in contention with the natural world, testing their expertise against it and finding, in their mastery of it, meaning—even grace. McCarthy is no stranger to this brand of masculinity, but here he invokes it as a self-conscious memory, a literary past that hovers in the reader’s imagination, reminding us of forms of masculine pleasure and satisfaction that have been irrevocably lost in the post-apocalyptic horror he’s conjured. With only the corpse of a natural world to grapple with, McCarthy’s father and son exist in a realm rarely seen in the ur-masculine literary tradition: the domestic. And from this unlikely vantage McCarthy makes a big, shockingly successful grab at the universal.
In the fictional realm Hemingway defined and epitomized, since visited by writers like Norman Maclean, William Kittredge, and Rick Bass, the natural world acts as a means of sublimating and exorcising men’s emotional states. In Hemingway’s case, its hallmark was a subdued meting out of descriptive detail that suggested emotional restraint, even repression. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” the perennial Hemingway protagonist Nick Adams returns, wounded from war, to the town of Seney, only to find it burned to the ground. “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country,” the story reads. “The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had left not a trace …” In a nearby river, Nick sees trout—the same he imagined fishing for during the nights in Italy (related in another Hemingway story, “Now I Lay Me”) when he was wounded. “Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again.” The sight of trout lifts Nick out of his dark mood; nature is a haven from the injuries and disappointments human beings inflict upon each other. Hemingway often voices this pessimism, but it is nowhere to be found when his protagonists are in the natural world, even when Nick Adams confronts the destruction of the town he remembers. “Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned.”
In The Road, everything is burned—the result of an apocalyptic event (whether of natural or human origin is never clear) that killed virtually all forms of life and that threatens, a decade later, to wipe out the human race. There is no limit to the devastation, only new forms of its expression, and McCarthy renders these up in lush, sensuous prose that belies the inertness of its object and keeps the reader in a constant state of longing and alarm. “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.” But these gorgeous descriptions are a foil, a tease—nature as we know it exists only in the dreams and memories of the man and in the questions of his son, who was born days after the apocalypse and talks of crows, the sun—now permanently obscured—and the blue sea with the same mythical longing one hears in today’s children’s talk of queens and dragons. Early in the novel, the man looks at a river now empty of life and recalls seeing trout: “He’d stood at such a river once and watched the flash of trout deep in a pool, invisible to see in the teacolored water except as they turned on their sides to feed. Reflecting back the sun deep in the darkness like a flash of knives in a cave.”
The man, who goes unnamed, is an outdoorsman in the Hemingway tradition. His savvy and wits kept him alive through the apocalypse—he began filling a bathtub with water as soon as he heard the explosions—and have sustained him and his son through the following years of misrule by marauding gangs of thugs who steal, kill, and eat the only fresh food still available: human flesh. His keen instincts rescue the pair several times over the course of the book as they head south, toward the coast, hoping for warmer weather. He’s good at building and repairing things, and McCarthy enumerates the mechanics of this work with a meditative absorption that evokes Hemingway. Here the man repairs the wheel of their cart: ”… He pulled the bolt and bored out the collet with a hand drill and resleeved it with a section of pipe he’d cut to length with a hacksaw. Then he bolted it all back together and stood the cart upright and wheeled it around the floor. It ran fairly true.”
Our literary expectation is that the man’s ingenuity will redeem him, but while it’s true that he and the boy survive a number of scrapes in The Road, the agony of the novel is that things are getting worse, not better. At one time the man used to teach the boy lessons, but that has fallen away. Now he’s coughing up blood and knows he will soon die of some affliction to his lungs—perhaps caused by the explosions and ceaseless fires that still burn. On a denatured planet, the man’s survival skills are focused purely on scavenging for and protecting his son, whom he cares for with passionate devotion. The bulk of The Road consists of the rituals of child-care and child rearing, which McCarthy renders with a tenderness that is a world apart from that of Nick Adams, whose father delivered a child before his eyes and inveighed against masturbation, bestiality, and fear of the woods. In a bomb shelter the man finds underground, he tries to cut the boy’s hair: “He tried to do a good job and it took some time. When he was done he took the towel from around the boy’s shoulders and he scooped the golden hair from the floor and wiped the boy’s face and shoulders with a damp cloth and held a mirror for him to see.”
Later, when the boy is sick, McCarthy writes of the man: “He held him all night, dozing off and waking in terror, feeling for the boy’s heart. In the morning he was no better. He tried to get him to drink some juice but he would not. He pressed his hand to his forehead, conjuring up a coolness that would not come. He wiped his white mouth while he slept. I will do what I promised, he whispered. No matter what. I will not send you into the darkness alone.”
It’s worth asking whether this passage would seem mawkish if the parent in question were a woman—whether the literary trappings of self-conscious maleness are what allow McCarthy to maintain such agonizing pathos while inoculating him against sentimentality and, by association, triviality. His single failure in The Road, interestingly, comes in his treatment of the boy’s mother, who appears in an early flashback to inform her husband that she’s chosen to kill herself rather than face the end of the world. The lifeless rhetoric McCarthy ascribes to her as she justifies abandoning her child makes for a two-dimensional contrast to the lively characterizations of father and son.
Beyond the immediate struggle for survival, the deep struggle explored in The Road is that of raising a child in a world without hope; and for the boy, the complementary challenge of assuming the responsibilities of manhood in such a world. There would seem to be nothing to sustain these two—the natural world exists only in effigy, and the remaining humans have mostly sacrificed their humanity as the price of survival. Yet the boy is constantly seeking to define a moral structure he can live by—one that accounts for the fact that his father doesn’t help stray people on the road, but still ensures their own distinction from the cannibals. After they discover a basement full of human prisoners who will be used for food, the boy asks: “We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?”
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we weren’t.
I said we weren’t dying. I didn’t say we weren’t starving.
But we wouldn’t.
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.
The existence of a moral structure—the will to do good—is the soaring discovery hidden in McCarthy’s scourged planet. He evokes Hemingway’s literary vision in order to invert it, first by eliminating the promise that nature can provide a refuge from human destruction (an appropriate revision in our era of nuclear rogues and global warming) and finally by giving us redemption in the form of the love between a parent and a child—their desire to be good although it serves no purpose. McCarthy is overt in his suggestion that this vision is holy. As the dying man is cared for by his son, he describes the boy as being surrounded by light. Watching him, the man seems to address some higher power directly with his mind: “Look around you, he said. There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who’s not honored here today. Whatever form you spoke of you were right.”
In the novel’s final passage, eerily reminiscent of “Big Two-Hearted River,” McCarthy returns to the image of trout: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow … On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back.” Hemingway’s emotional and spiritual refuge is long gone. But the redemption, McCarthy seems to say, was in us all the time.