Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a meditation on death, both of individuals and humanity, is by turns bleak and exhilarating, says Adam Mars-Jones

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Picador, £16.99, pp241

If culture has a foundation stone, it must be the denial of death. Attempts to confront the void so often seem hollow. Even Philip Roth's Everyman, about the inevitable end of an averagely privileged American life, didn't quite come off, for all the author's brilliance and willpower. The imagination can't entirely pull up its roots in wish-fulfilment. Yet somehow, Cormac McCarthy's new novel, conjuring up the end not of an individual but of all humanity, feels very real. Death comes close.

A man and his young son make their slow way across a blasted landscape towards the sea. Theirs is a rodent life of hiding and scavenging. They follow the road, but sleep out of sight of it whenever they can. Other human beings have nothing to offer but cruelty and danger. The father creeps out of the boy's earshot at night when he has a coughing fit.

For all practical purposes, the world came to an end some years before in what was presumably a nuclear war, although those words are not used. The dead are unburied and thousands of mummified corpses can be seen still stuck in the tar of the roads that melted round them as they tried to escape.

The boy was not yet born then, though he was well on the way. It isn't certain that he remembers his mother. Now the sun hardly shows its face and nothing grows. The man has to explain the phrase 'as the crow flies' to his son, in the absence of crows or anything else that flies.

Without vitamin D in pill form, the boy will get rickets. There's rarely a roof over his head, so he's out in all weathers, but the sun no longer plays its part in the old bargain of outdoor lives and healthy bones. The only food to be had for the dwindling bands of survivors is tinned - and miraculously undiscovered by all the other scavengers - or else human.

The Road isn't a fable, or a prophesy, or even a tract in the manner of Shute's On the Beach. It's a thought and feeling experiment, bleak, exhilarating (in fact, endurable) only because of its integrity, its wholeness of seeing. The man pushing his shopping cart towards nothing hopeful, boxing the compass of despair, makes Brecht's Mother Courage seem downright fortunate in the choices she must make.

There's one literary figure who seems to have a copyright on desolation and futility, who wrote about last things almost from the first, Samuel Beckett. Eschatology was mother's milk to him. There's one episode in The Road which comes uncomfortably close to Beckett's style, but otherwise, McCarthy steps out of that coldly consoling shadow and dares to overturn Beckett's aesthetic choices.

The Beckettian passage is one where the man and boy encounter an old man tapping his way along with a stick. He claims he knew what was coming: 'People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt [sic] believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt [sic] getting ready for them. It didnt [sic] even know they were there.' In this rare bit of a dialogue with a stranger, there's a sense of play-acting, even pleasure in the exchange of profound platitudes: 'Do you wish you would die?/ No. But I might wish I had died. When you're alive you always got that ahead of you./ Or you might wish you'd never been born./ Well. Beggars cant [sic] be choosers./ You think that would be asking too much./ What's done is done. Anyway, it's foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.' Still, the Irish existential flavour here ('There is no God and we are his prophets') is a little strong.

McCarthy has his own idea of thrift, as he shows with his eccentric rationing of punctuation (dont, musnt, wasnt), but he reverses the linguistic parsimoniousness of the master. Beckett's late style was very pared down, but McCarthy reverts to a poetic register closer to Yeats: 'All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain,' for example. This turning back of the clock may seem irrational and even reactionary, but it has its own logic. If writing must always bear some relationship to beauty (and Beckett's has a great, mineral beauty), if you can only limit the play of connotation but not eliminate it, why bother to try? There's more bad faith in an artificial rigour than in the richness of language through which desolation filters here.

Language takes the edge off. That's obviously true of a fin de siecle-sounding sentence such as: 'By day, the banished Sun circles the Earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.' But it's also true of: 'They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts.' Street addicts at least have the possibility of begging from those better off. There are none now better off. It's even true of: 'He looked like something out a death camp', since the whole earth is now a death camp, one with no guards, only inmates.

In this extremity, there are more words than things, as the world shrinks down around 'a raw core of parsible entities'. This new world even fits the pattern of American pastoral - a wilderness and no women - though nature can provide no more than the occasional mushroom or some desiccated apples hidden in the dead grass of a dead orchard.

Part of the achievement of The Road is its poetic description of landscapes from which the possibility of poetry would seem to have been stripped, along with their ability to support life.

The 'sacred idiom shorn of its referents' must die in its turn, but before then, it is entitled to one last flight, like the flocks of migratory birds the man heard once in the early days of the post-world, their half-muted crankings miles above him in the bitter dark, when 'he wished them Godspeed until they were gone'.

· To order The Road for £15.99 with free UK p&p, go to or call 0870 836 0885


Adam Mars-Jones

The GuardianTramp

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