Sunday, October 15, 2006

Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Like “genius” or “hero,” the word “reinvention,” lately waylaid by artistic lightweights, has been devalued and is increasingly a cliché in literature, arts and entertainment. Whether it’s a has-been actor turned reality show never-was, or a vapid va-voom starlet famous for being infamous who yearns to write an “as told to” tell-all, everyone -- though keeping one foot in the door -- wants an out. The rest, seeking a different stint in the same trade, will be all those washed-up actors who really want to direct.

But sometimes it's not the klieg-light acclaim, but the off-stage immaterial accrual that somehow constitutes a tenuous tie to perceived artistic growth. Madonna affects a British accent and myopically chases Kabala-rooted spirituality like a trend-on-a-stick, and - at the drop of a new CD or another concert curtain - proclaims herself transformed, like a virgin no more. Again.

If, to ratchet up the gravitas considerably, any novelist deserves a Reinvention Booksigning Tour of his or her own, it would have to be Cormac McCarthy, who could most certainly reinvent reinvention once again if he had to, restoring back to its former glory the golden substance beneath the stylistic glitter.

With the beginning of his writing career as a Rhode Island transplant to rural Tennessee in 1965, McCarthy distinguished himself as a Southern novelist with a mean Faulknerian streak. But after having moved to El Paso a decade later, McCarthy invented himself anew as a Western writer, marked by touches of Melville and Conrad. With the publication, in 1985, of his dark masterwork Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West -- a violently Peckinpah-esque retelling of the Davy Crockett legend -- McCarthy decidedly descended into an American-ingrained exploration of thematic and visceral force.

The inconsistent but often striking '90s-spanning Border Trilogy that brought to McCarthy both book awards and mass appeal -- All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities Of The Plain -- toned down the cinematic brutality by affording, in these affecting coming-of-age stories, more of a John Ford flavor. And last year’s modern-day No Country For Old Men trades in a little literary cache and rich characterization for a more accessible and entertaining capper to his Western phase - at least for now.

With The Road, McCarthy makes a full-tilt departure with a bleakly picaresque post-apocalyptic epic. Though presumably America, the unnamed land of deprivation and “cold autistic dark” here is not only not a country for old men in the Western or even Yeatsian sense, it is, in effect, a no-man’s land unfit for anyone and anything.

But some, bloodied and often bowed, have chosen to subside, if not thrive, in the ill-boding badlands that stretch on seemingly ceaselessly. With his keenly-focused study of resolve in the face of such desolation, McCarthy follows the travels and travails of a father and young son, "each the other's world entire." The pair -- determined to survive after the suicide of the family's wife and mother -- slowly plod on, scavenging with cart in tow and revolver in hand, heading south to the sea to escape in aimless flight the increasingly cold climes and bleak setting of an ashen-skied wasteland.

Destroyed cities and burned-out countryside are devoid of all wildlife and virtually uninhabited, and many of the befallen few who’ve lived to tell a harrowing tale become, if not “creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a fever land,” then too-willingly amenable to a cannibalistic desperado existence as Mad-Max-style marauders and looters.

Beyond the comforting charade that the pessimism-driven but perceptive and understanding father displays for his son -- that they are the "good guys" who “carry the fire" as they run from menacing raiders -- there are, even within the truly horrifying events witnessed and among the wretched souls, madmen and prophets they cross paths with, no specific villains to name. And little of value to point to amid many shades of gray merging with the dust and smoke.

And besides an allusion to a corollary devastation constituted in a "long shear of light and then a series of low concussions," the exact cause of the end-times holocaust is never explained. Then again, no too-little-to-late consideration of fire or ice, bang or whimper really needs to be reflected upon when confronted with the ineffability of "the frailty of everything revealed at last,“ and “old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.“

But The Road is not a book you will be plucking from the SciFi/Fantasy shelves in your bookstore. There are no plot-driven devices at play here, and though it is not the chronicle’s destination that matters - neither is it the journey, perilous as it is, fraught with injury and illness, and rarely, relatively, rewarding.

Furthermore, the overriding genre-busting literary recompense of The Road is also not just comprised in the stylistic matter of McCarthy’s multi-layered, commanding and majestically-evoking poetics, broken here and there with spare, circular and at times droll Samuel Beckett-like dialogue. Neither is this the case of McCarthy merely building upon and extending -- though there is that facet -- the edge-of-the-frontier themes undertaken in his previous Western or Southern works.

In concerns more geared toward present-day political and military issues, whatever allusions to specific global-power saber-rattling and its potential consequences may be read into the novel -- and perhaps justified to an extent -- there is indeed a limit to such forced speculation. McCarthy’s at-times cryptically under-wraps economy in word and meaning belies any clear-cut conjecture here, though it may be presumed that he is addressing such topics obliquely, with universality and timelessness in mind.  

That's not the case when it comes to characterizations, especially when each emanation of analysis, appreciation and gut-instinct authority lies in conveyances directly derived from the actions and reactions of the father and son, whose personalities are indelibly marked by contrasting natures.

The father’s emptiness and ever-guarded suspicions extend even to his dreams, whether unsettling or comforting - because “the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.” The child, probably no more than ten years old, is too ready to trust and empathize with others in such times, in such “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

Both fundamentally fragile and vulnerable in such dire circumstances, they may be able to survive, “Slumping along, Filthy, ragged hopeless,” but only one will endure the “sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular.” That such a grim and undaunted a rumination on ruination and depravity may possibly allow a glimmer of redeeming affirmation and love speaks to McCarthy’s masterful command and precision in this profoundly moving story.

And that someone, anyone, in such formidable conditions could “raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle,” speaks volumes about McCarthy's capacity for humanity, heart, and ultimate hope.

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