The Long and Ashy Road

Despite my ongoing interest in Oprah and her book club (you read it here first: she’ll return to it with a vengeance once she has her own cable network), I did not read her 2007 book selection, the Pulizer prize winning Cormac McCarthy novel The Road, until this weekend.  During Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house (where we ate a lovely, very non-Americana dinner of beef bourguignon a la Julia Child) the hostess begged us to read it so she could talk about it with others.  My friend (a Henry James scholar and now administrator—but don’t hold that against her) thought the novel so haunting, so emotionally affecting, that she read it twice (this despite it being about ¼ the length of a typical James novel).

So I picked up the novel on Friday and finished it (between grading, socializing, cleaning, etc) this morning.  And she is right: it IS haunting (it takes place post some sort of natural disaster, though those who felt the ash of Mount Saint Helen’s eruption in 1980 might have an idea). It also teeters on bad Hemingway in the sparseness of its language (this quote from the novel is  from Jennifer Egan’s glowing review in Slate comparing the McCarthy’s moral vision to Hemingway’s):

After they discover a basement full of human prisoners who will be used for food, the boy asks his father, (aka “the man”—similar to Hemingway’s the man and the girl in “Hills Like White Elephants”):

 We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we weren’t.
I said we weren’t dying. I didn’t say we weren’t starving.
But we wouldn’t.
No. We wouldn’t.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

But, once I got over that, and just allowed the simple sentences to work their incantatory magic (and just as in good Hemingway, they do), I was hooked.

The story of a father and son in search of food and survival, and some more good guys, years after the world was practically destroyed, where the few humans left have either become more fully godlike, thus empathetic and altruistic, or more fully human (and thus selfish, self serving, desperate), with a few sort of tottering in between.  The boy provides the moral compass in the story, reminding his father to retain what little humanity he has left. The father is a biblical figure, and if I knew the bible better I’d be able to figure out which one (the person who originally owned my used copy of the book had some wonderful annotations, pointing out references to Yeats and the prophet Elijah, but I’m not sure I buy the father as the Christ figure: the boy has more of Christ in him).

So yes, it’s the basic post-apocalyptic novel, though without aliens, just alienated humans.  I can imagine Hemingway’s Jake and Brett as the father and mother, and the child a throwback to those pre WWII times (she has a minor role in the novel, though it looks like, with Charlize Theron in the role, the mother has a much bigger role in the film). It’s one of those novels that will be discussed in Faith and Fiction classes alongside Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (with its father and son travelling by foot in the post-Civil War south). It’s one of those novels that would work nicely with many a Hemingway novel: although for Hemingway, grace is in keeping a stiff upper lip, while for McCarthy, grace is in keeping the fire and light of compassion within lit, a much more optimistic moral, though also one that I can’t imagine films well.

And the novel has flaws: it’s painful and horrific at times to read (though for me, the style of the writing mitigates the horror, which in itself is a bit of a horror if you think about it), but despite their months-long travel with each day being darn similar to the next, I still found it engrossing. Luckily, I’ve avoided most commentary on the novel, so I didn’t know exactly how it would end. I suspect there are those who would argue that the ending is contrived, and contradictory (I’m being deliberately vague here for those who haven’t read it), but it also provides the reader with the necessary catharsis after the long, tense journey.

But I couldn’t help the little voice in my head echoing the last line in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”