Last year during a visit, my mother gave me the book The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I had never gotten around to reading it, but a few days ago I picked it up. I devoured the book in two sittings. Its terse prose and sentence fragments are initially offputting, but they, along with the inconsistent punctuation, add to the sense of a world unhinged, a world where grammatical propriety is irrelevant, and even thinking in complete sentences is a needless luxury. The book tells the story of a father and his son in a post-Apocalyptic setting of the southern US. We’re never clearly told what happened to end civilization, but there are inklings of nuclear holocaust, and then butchery and madness among the few survivors. The landscape is totally burned and barren, and the sky is permanently greyed by soot, smoke, and dust.
On a purely technical note, this burned-over, blackened setting is a very plausible way for the author to force his characters an existence based entirely on scavenging. If there were sunlight or surviving flora and fauna, human life could go on indefinitely through hunting and gathering or even planting. But McCarthy creates a world where there is no wildlife, and thus any humans must live by scavenging the jetsam of industrial society—canned goods, fruit that fell to the ground and dried up, metal and tools for non-food needs, and among the particularly evil, the flesh of other humans. For a guy like me who fancies that he’d be okay if civilization ended as long as he could sow and gather and hunt, this brave new world is really terrifying. There is a finality to everything—what humans remain are fated to gradually dwindle as they scavenge the steadily-decreasing pool of whatever canned goods they can find, and there is no foreseeable hope for a future reflourishing of the natural world. The Road takes place in a totally ruined planet.
Beyond the skillful sci-fi positing of a plausible Apocalyptic situation, the book speaks directly to the relationship between father and son. The main adult character is driven by an all-encompassing, overwhelming love for his son, but their maleness and the harsh conditions they live in leave little room for tenderness. Even in our less extreme, pre-Apocalyptic world, I think any father can understand the friction between wanting to pour out love and tenderness, and the social norms that demand we maintain some hardness to ourselves and our sons. In the book the most extreme manifestation of the difficulties of fatherhood and love is the father’s constant questioning about hope and the future for his son. Should he keep on moving, living, giving life to his son, or is it cruel to maintain hope and life when the world seems to offer no justification for either? The father’s final words to his son before dying are, “I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.” There is an eloquence, or at least an uncanny, heartrending sincerity, to the clumsiness and simplicity of these words. These are heartfelt words of love between father and son.
Another point I related to particularly was the father’s attempting to raise his son with the values and the referents of a world that no longer exists, and which in fact the son never knew. Is reading important when there are no more books and no leisure to read them? What can the son understand of summer or plants or fashion or cities when none of them exist anymore, and when his only knowledge of them comes from his father’s stories? Often as I raise my son outside of my birthplace, I find myself feeling similar things. I tell Sammy about growing up in 1990s Chicago, about different music and sports and current events and cultural norms, but sometimes all these things seem so far away that my telling of them is like a fairy tale.
I am really touched, even thrown off of my normal routine, after having read The Road. The night I finished it I went teary-eyed into my son’s room, pulled up his covers to keep him warm, and then crawled into bed next to my wife, happy to be alive and to have them alive and to live in a world that still hasn’t quite gone over the edge. I appreciate the little comforts of modern life after reading about a hypothetical world where they no longer exist—my hot shower, my garden, good food, a working, living city around me. My son and I have been butting heads a bit recently as he asserts his growing independence, struggles to communicate as he learns to string together words, and perhaps most of all worries about how having a new sibling will affect our love for him. Again, this is part of the normal tension that’s always there between father and son, but after reading The Road and thinking about all the awful things that could befall us but that thankfully haven’t, I can’t stay mad at him for too long.
I am also reminded that I need to get our house prepared for an emergency. I’m not talking about getting a .30/.06 rifle, laying in twenty years’ worth of provisions, and taking survivalist classes. No, just the typicalrecommendations for any family, exposed very wittily in this zombie-themedcommunique from the Centers for Disease Control. Now that we’ve finally got our house rehabbed and settled and in order, it would be good to put by a few months’ worth of rice, lentils, vegetable seeds, water, first aid supplies, etc. In our case, I’d want to prepare for taking care of needs for some twenty people—we’ve got a big extended family!
For now though, I think it’s important to leave The Road behind me. You can get really depressed thinking about the end of the world in such vivid, real terms. The big reading project that I’ve taken on for Sammy and especially his unborn sibling is the Odyssey. This is another one about the love between father and son in the midst of difficulty and distance.