Postapocalyptic novels were once popular, back in the last millennium, when we all worried about the Bomb and what it might do to us. Nevil Shute, an Australian novelist, delivered himself of quite a successful one, On the Beach, that later was translated to the screen and did its best to present the last days of a fatally contaminated world. Another favorite was A Canticle for Leibowitz (recently reissued), a Catholic novel about a Jewish scientist who inspired a new religious order.
Cormac McCarthy, best known for his western novels, has now added to the list with The Road, an account of the American journey of a father and young son from somewhere in the north to the southeast after the big one has been dropped. Like ShuteÕs novel, it eschews apocalyptic imagery and concentrates on the survivors and their various efforts at starting all over again.
But McCarthy does not disguise the enormous consequences of the disaster or the various effects it has on the people who join the trek south to escape as much of the fallout as possible. The father and son have to be very careful on their journey, since gangs of thugs have already formed to prey on travelers. In fact, the novel begins with the father killing one such thug when he tries to kidnap the son. Cannibalism is not uncommon, and the worst instincts often prevail in any given encounter.
What is striking about the novel, however, is the calmness of our two pilgrims as they travel hundreds of miles on foot. The boy is often frightened, but the father manages to calm him and cajole him along. This is a picaresque novel, filled with adventures of all kinds and casual meetings that can bring almost anything. The father makes every effort to ease the journey for the boy, who, of course, is still in shock over the loss of his mother at her own hand and the end of the world as he has known it.
The code they live by is a simple but hardly an easy one. They are the "good guys" who are "carrying the fire," so they must disassociate themselves from the "bad guys" who are much more numerous and travel in packs. For father and son the goal is the ocean, the original source of all life and now perhaps a new source of life for them.
What gives the story its emotional appeal is in part the contrast between father and son. The latter always wants to help anyone in need, like the man who has been struck by lightning, but the father knows that can lead to disaster, since there is so little anyone can do for another. The journey is in large part an educational program for the boy so that when the father dies, as he knows he will, the boy will be prepared to continue living. Much of the fatherÕs grief comes from his awareness that he will not be able to protect his son in the long term, so he must find another adult to whom he can entrust the boy. That is the journeyÕs ultimate goal.
Along the way they stumble upon an abandoned house with a large store of food saved up for the catastrophe, but not a single soul is to be found. They break their habit of continual movement and stay for a couple of days, eating quite literally off the fat of the land. Such brief glimpses of happiness carry them over the many days of short rations.
Finally they reach Florida and the sea. It is there that the father hopes to find his replacement. The son wants to go swimming, despite the fatherÕs warning of the cold: "You’ll freeze your tokus off." But the boy insists and comes out looking blue but triumphant. The father, too, has a moment of exaltation when he discovers a century-old brass sextant in an abandoned ship:
He lifted it from the fitted case and held it in his hand. Struck by the beauty of it. The brass was dull and there were patches of green on it but otherwise it was perfect.... It was the first thing he had seen in a long time that had stirred him.
Finally the moment comes when the father can no longer go on; the son is desolate, but the father tells him to keep speakint to hom in his head, and he will hear him. The boy is not convinced, but he knows his father is near death. "You have to carry the fire," his father tells him, and then: "I can’t hold my own son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I can’t"
The final movement is one of hope. A man who had noticed the boy and his father comes upon the boy and learns that the father has died. "I think you should come with me," he says. "Are you one of the good guys?" the boy asks. "Yeha," he said. "I’m one of the goodguys. Why don’t you put that pistol away?" The father’s final wish has been realized--to find a foster father for his boy--and the man and his wife seem to understand what "carrying the fire" means. The boy is safe again.
Cormac McCarthy has crafter a lean fable in this book that spells out the horrors we may face in our atomic future, but he also gives us hope for our continuance with the story of a father who gives all to his son, and stranger who takes the father’s plac when all seems lost.