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It’s different this time, Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel. We’re not in the far or near past, the old west or West Virginia. We’re not treated to long, super-vocabularied philosophical discourses. No, The Road places us in a post-apocalyptic world with language and circumstances as elemental as the dilemma of where to find your next meal.
Nothing new about post-apocalyptic novels, of course. They’ve been the mother’s milk of science fiction for a long time, and they’re usually the occasion for object lessons about the dangers of powerful weaponry or the horrors of such weapons in the wrong hands. “The idiot child with a machine gun” is one image I remember from a long-ago read. Or they try to examine just how humans and their societies will behave when the social superstructure disappears, as, they assume, it must.  The Earth Abides by George Stewart postulates a patriarchal/tribal society being established after the bomb and includes a road trip of its own. However, in that book, the clan is fairly well-established and the road trip is an exploratory reaching out to see if and how the larger society might be bound back together. It’s also fairly specific about the technological elements both of destruction and survival. The Road, on the other hand, takes place in a world of chaos  and violence, and McCarthy makes no attempt to explain what happened or how. We know the event was devastating and sudden, that it seared and polluted the environment and incinerated nearly everybody.
The book sets us down in this world with a man and his boy (unnamed, and thus, I suppose archetypal). The man is sick–a respiratory infection or injury of some sort. The boy around ten. They’re trying to go south. To get warm. Beyond that, we know nothing of where they are and where they’re headed. Not do we need to. Their conversations are simple, yet extraordinarily deep. Deeper than many of the lengthy expostulations of McCarthy’s other novels:

He stopped and looked back at the boy. The boy stopped and waited.
You think you’re going to die, don’t you?
I don’t know.
We’re not going to die.
But you dont believe me.
I don’t know.
Why do you think we’re going to die?
I dont know.
Stop saying I dont know.
Okay. . . .
But you dont believe me.
I dont know.
He studied him. Standing there with his hands in the pockets of the outsized pinstriped suitcoat.
Do you think I lie to to you?
But you think I might lie to you about dying.
Okay. I might. But we’re not dying.

The man and his boy encounter some of the same perils along the road  one encounters in other such novels. This is a road warrior environment, so there are gangs of brutes and murderers about. The pair also have occasional good luck just when they need it, when you think there’s little or no hope. And some bad luck just when you think they’ve finally got something going for them. The important thing about the action, though, is that there is no real goal. They cannot rest. A safe haven will be safe only so long, and sometimes it’s not safe at all. There is nothing and no one to trust because circumstances have turned everyone into wretched savages and every refuge into a trap. The Road is in the end about the struggle to identify and hold on to moral essentials and still survive. To be, as the man and boy so succinctly, simply, and appropriately (for this book) put it “the good guys.”
When I heard Oprah had chosen this book, I was amazed at the idea of McCarthy and her in the same literary universe. But this one is different. And since most of her books deal with the treatment of children, it’s absolutely fitting that she make this strange pairing. For McCarthy, he’s like a desert mountain here, stripped bare of vegetation so you can see the stark framework of the foundations of his literary earth. It’s quite a sight, and The Road is a welcome addition to his rich legacy.

sitting up clapping

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