The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The unnamed travellers on the road to hell
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The Independent Culture

Nuclear apocalypse. Cannibals scour the ashen planet for survivors. A mutilated baby roasts on a spit. Two survivors, a father and son, walk towards the sea of a desolate America looking for who knows what. Encounter despair, a little hope, more despair. All particularly rendered in Cormac McCarthy's spare, psalmic prose. Not the perfect Mother's Day gift.

Still, The Road inspires. We are watching a late flowering of a great American novelist. This is McCarthy's tenth novel, his second in quick succession, and his first set in the future. There are three others, say the Magi, in the pipeline. But for McCarthy disciples - and there are hundreds already debating the arcane details of his latest bloodfest in cyberspace - this novel will feel like a strange return: to the 1840s, and the author's scalp-hunting masterpiece, Blood Meridian.

We find "the man" and "the child" - left unnamed, and more knowable for it - journeying on a bleak earth. A recent disaster, we presume atomic, has rendered all but a few hardy souls extinct, and everywhere death lingers in brutal monochrome. The man uses his binoculars to scour the countryside for "anything of color", but finds none. He promises his child that when they have reached their destination, the sea, it will be blue. I am spoiling no man's plot by telling you the child is disappointed.

The man's life is lived in between dreams of his past existence: "rich dreams now which he was loath to wake from... He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not."

For these two survivors, one born into hell, and one a remnant of an extinct planet, language has become a strange ford. The man often explains things in a pat phrase from the old world - "as the crow flies", for example - only to find the child, heartbreaking to discover, has no idea what his father is talking about. There are no birds in the new world, and the signal has lost its sign. Just as touching, though, is the boy's use of odd, learned phrases. "Warm at last," says the child. "Where did you get that?" says the man, as if it were a grubby toy brought home from school in dubious circumstances.

For all these exchanges, though, the man can not readily bring himself to explain to his son how things used to be: "he could not enkindle in the child's heart what was ashes in his own." That task is left to McCarthy, whose precision of natural imagery is, as ever, startling. "He'd watched a falcon," intones the narrator, "fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn air."

If The Road's descriptions of the lost world take on an implicit spirituality, there is nothing implicit about the child's role as saviour. "If he is not the word of God God never spoke," the man tells us. Meanwhile, both father and son affirm, in conversations that tend towards un-McCarthyist mawkishness, that they are "the good guys" who are "carrying the fire". The father's sense of mission is palpable: "my job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you."

Can the good guys win? The answer, unlike McCarthy's perfect nightmare, is not black and white. For all its grim imaginings, The Road's divine language carries its two entwined souls above the darkness. McCarthy continues to carry the fire.

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