Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, John Updike. Which of these authors is not like the others? Last year, the New York Times put out a list of the “Best Work of American Fiction of the Past 25 Years.” Toni Morrison’s Beloved earned the top honors, but the first runner-up was Blood Meridian, perhaps the most brutally violent work of all of American literature, written by a reclusive resident of Texas named Cormac McCarthy. Before the New York Times published this list, McCarthy’s greatest claims to fame would likely be the film adaptation of his novel All the Pretty Horses (the novel version of which was an honorable mention on the list along with two other McCarthy novels) staring Matt Damon and the repeated claims of aging literary critic Harold Bloom that Blood Meridian is one of the best works of American fiction of all time. According to Bloom, and many others, McCarthy will likely become as well known as Morrison, Roth, DeLillo, and Updike in the coming years. What is so surprising about this is how greatly McCarthy’s works differ from those of the other great contemporary American authors. While Morrison attempts to wrestle with what it means to be haunted by the past, the events and effects that slavery and racism brought about, with what it means to be African-American, McCarthy writes about American soldiers who scalp Indians for the Mexican government without any commentary on colonization, oppression, or race relations. While DeLillo explores the new, commercialized horror of living in a world completely submerged by the media and late-capitalism, and ironically laments the mediation of death and the futility of dieing authentically, McCarthy strips the world of all superstructures and ideals and focuses on one question: why live? In the author’s latest work The Road (which was just chosen by Oprah for her book club and awarded a Pulitzer on Monday), he moves further ideologically from his postmodern contemporaries and seems to make a claim for the importance of religion in both our personal and intellectual lives. In doing so, he crafts a gripping tale of survival and the transcendent importance of a father-son relationship.
The Road follows the story of a father and son (who remain nameless throughout the novel) as they learn how and why they should survive in an utterly desolate world. The father and son make their way south through a wasted earth (destroyed by some unspoken disaster), avoiding bands of cannibals, and searching for canned food, all the while questioning if they are the “good guys” or not. The Road might sound more like a 70’s B-movie than a work of great fiction, but that’s all part of McCarthy’s genius: he is able to place his characters in settings that are typically used to explore social or political issues and yet never address those issues. We don’t know what happened to the earth, all we are told is that there was “a series of low concussions” and that the father started filling his bathtub right away. McCarthy carefully leaves nearly all possibilities open: it could have been a natural disaster, a meteor, a nuclear war, just about anything. Each of these possibilities opens up a set of related political issues that would necessitate commentary, and I doubt any of his contemporaries would have passed up such a chance were they in his shoes, but McCarthy has bigger fish to fry.
It is easy to read The Road as an exploration of nihilism, or at least extreme pessimism, if you ignore the father/son relationship. The landscape of the novel is a wasteland like no other: brutal, ugly, gray, and a mere shell of the world that had been. The man and the boy are perpetually hungry, cold, and alone. The reader is propelled through the narrative by a sense of impending tragedy. But amongst this darkness shines the light of the boy and his father. There are essentially three worldviews presented in the book: the mother, the father, and the boy. The mother of the boy kills herself before the story takes place because she believes that they are doomed: “Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us.” The father believes that life is worth living, but only to keep his son alive. Finally, the boy challenges both of his parents worldviews by believing in a Christ-like, love-thy-neighbor philosophy when his neighbors are cannibals. He rejects the rationalist beliefs of his mother and the humanist stance of his father, and in doing so makes a claim for the validity of faith---Christian faith at that, in the modern world.
The boy was born into the demolished world; his only connection to the culture and society of the past is his father. What is so striking about this character is that he remains the moral center of the novel without having ever been exposed to the ideas of morality and ethics from modern culture. In fact, much of the novel is comprised of the father acting to keep them alive and the boy questioning whether or not the actions were moral, whether or not the acts made them the “good guys.” In this role, the boy seems to function as a Christ-figure (a fact that is not missed by the father who once suggests to a destitute old man that the boy might be a god: “What if I said that he’s a god?” (145)). At one point in the story, the cart which they use to carry all their supplies is stolen by a starving bandit. The father catches the thief and forces him to strip down and put everything he owns in the cart. The boy protests, “Papa please dont kill the man,” knowing that without food and covering he will die. But echoing the Old Testament ethos of an “eye for an eye,” the father contends that his actions are just since the thief, “didnt mind doing it to us.” After they leave the man to die, the boy cries and confronts his father:
Just help him, Papa. Just help him.
The man looked back up the road.
He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.
He’s going to die anyway.
The boy here urges his father to have a Christ like love and turn the other cheek. To which the father replies:
You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.
This claim to be “the one,” the “I am,” in the context of this conversation clearly establishes the boy’s symbolic representation of Christ. By the end of the novel it is apparent that McCarthy wants to suggest that Christianity, albeit an unorthodox version, might be the only way to live (or to desire to keep living) in our world filled with violent and selfish people.
The Road might be one of the best works of apologetics published in 2006; it is also a captivating tale of a father/son relationship and a suspenseful horror story. It seems that one of the greatest authors of our time is not an atheist member of the postmodern intelligentsia, but a reclusive old man in Texas who writes of bloodshed, death, violence, truth, love, and faith.