The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Words for the end of a world
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The Independent Culture

A score or more years ago, Anthony Rudolf published a pamphlet entitled "Byron's Darkness: Lost Summer and Nuclear Winter". He presented Byron's poem - written in 1816, the year the sun rose unseen, thanks to a Brobdingnagian volcanic eruption - as a prognostication of the coming catastrophe. Ignoring the current preference for global warming as the means to our end, Cormac McCarthy has now chosen to reprise Byron's vision of a world in which "the bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars/ Did wander darkling in the eternal space,/ Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth/ Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air".

The three last words of his extraordinary new novel are "hummed of mystery". They refer to the world that has been lost, the world before Homo sapiens blundered on the scene. But they could equally well serve as the book's epitaph.

Numerous mysteries and their hum make The Road so much more than a political jeremiad. McCarthy declines to detail the immediate cause of the apocalypse. He is equally unspecific about the date of the catastrophe, though very certain of the time the clocks stopped: 1:17. Sounds a bit like a biblical reference to me.

Sure enough, it has occasioned much debate among McCarthy's more talmudic fans, who have noted that the protagonist of his previous book (No Country for Old Men ) was gunned down outside a motel room whose number was also 117. Significance, or mere coincidence?

Some think it a reference to Genesis 1:17 ("And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth"), while others favour the Book of Revelation: "And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead". I'm no biblical scholar, but I'll put my money on Exodus 1:17: "But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive".

In any event, The Road describes the efforts of a father to preserve his young son's life. "My job is to take care of you," the one tells the other. "I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you." Even so, the father depends upon his son, almost as much as his son depends upon him. When floored by despair and weakness he sees the boy "standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle".

Early on their via dolorosa, the father plucks a can of Coca-Cola (perhaps the world's last) from the entrails of a smashed dispenser. The boy (who knows not what it is) sips it ceremoniously. Since hardly anything is named, the drink is not named accidentally. But to what end? Surely not product placement. No, it is because in the lost world Coca-Cola was sold as the nation's collective tea and madeleine, as the American Dream's communion wine, its bubbles a repository of youthful memory. But, to the boy, they are just fizz.

And the youthful memories he will accumulate are hellish, mediated only by a father's love. Although no political words are spoken, this quasi-religious scene is by no means apolitical.

The red can shines like a warning beacon in an otherwise grey world, a warning to those Coke-swilling horsemen of the apocalypse who anticipate the end of days and the rapture to come thereafter. Follow me, invites McCarthy, and see just what that rapture will be like.

Despite the biblical undertow, the journey that father and son undertake is unmistakably an American one: a grim re-enactment of pioneer crossings (as well as later ones by Jack Kerouac and Robert Pirsig). Instead of a covered wagon, father and son push a supermarket trolley; instead of a loyal wife and mother, there is only the memory of a woman who decamped with death; instead of dashing bandits, there are merciless cannibals who devour their own newborn, and would eat them, too, given half a chance.

As the faithless wife implies, they now inhabit the hopeless world of George A Romero, rather than the brave new one of John Ford. Yet father and son doggedly hang on to some remnant of that vanished optimism. In their minds they remain the "good guys", essentially distinct from the "bad guys". Their destination is the south, where (they hope) the freezing air may be milder.

When they eventually reach the Gulf (which turns out to be as grey and cold as everywhere else), the boy begs to be allowed to swim in it. The father's reply is worth noting. "You'll freeze your tokus off," he warns. There are plenty of obscure words in the book ("parsible", "torsional", "vermiculate") but none other of Yiddish derivation.

It's just a hunch, but I think I hear in it an echo of those heart-breaking memoirs (such as Aharon Appelfeld's) that record a feral childhood on the run from the Nazis. In short, the inhumanity of McCarthy's "bloodcults" is not unprecedented. What is different this time is that they have a made a cinder of the world, undoing the six days of creation, and making language redundant.

As the last of the good guys leads his son along the bleak southern shore, together they observe the "ashen effigies" of hydrangeas, ferns and wild orchids. When the wind has reduced them to dust, their names too will vanish from the world's diminishing store of words. Inexorably, the "sacred idiom" is being shorn of referents and so of its reality. Also gone, or going, are the "names of things one believed to be true" - not to mention the names of the main characters.

Just once the father calls out his wife's name, but we, the readers, do not get to hear it. Neither do we hear the father's name at the climactic moment when his son calls it over and over again. Nameless they remain, but some connective tissue, some deep sympathy, makes them human and knowable to us, causes us to care almost beyond bearing about their fates, and so makes us read on compulsively for fear of what might happen to them. And us.

Clive Sinclair's book about the American West, 'Back in the Saddle Again', will be published by Picador

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