A nameless man and his son traverse a ruined country that was once the United States, looking for food and shelter and trying to avoid the few other humans left in the wasteland of North America. By day they follow roads south, heading, they hope, for warmer weather, heading for the Atlantic coast through eastern Tennessee. By night they take refuge well off the road, risking the use of small, careful campfires to cook their meager rations and to protect them from the cold and the impenetrable dark. Their basic needs are easy to describe but increasingly difficult to achieve: they must keep moving so that wandering bands of outlaws and cannibals do not find them; they must find food and water; they must stay dry and warm; they must persuade one another that the life they are living is in some way worth living.
The action of this novel takes place in a world that has experienced the devastation of a nuclear holocaust. Perhaps ten years after the explosions, this father and his young son live in a world in which they are members of what is apparently the last living species. All other life is dead and gone--they once hear the barking of a faroff dog, but even that hint of other life disappears. The sky is so filled with blowing and drifting ashes that the sun can add little warmth to the earth. Even the dawn can manage nothing better than a lighter gray darkness, like "the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world" (3). What has not been consumed by fire is sere and dead--no living plants, nothing in the sky or sea but ashes and death. The creation has been undone, perhaps permanently; only a barren planet continues to move in its orbit. Wind and rain and snow, thunder, lightning, and fire--these things remain, but nothing lives except for a handful of scattered and fugitive humans. Their situation asks not what can be made of a diminished thing but instead what it will take for the species to survive at all and, if it can survive, whether the humans who do survive will still be humans in any positive sense of that word.
Cormac McCarthy is well known as an author of strange and troubling tales of characters in extremis. From his earliest novels in the 1960s on through No Country for Old Men (2005), McCarthy has focused regularly on a world of violence and cruelty, forcing his readers to come to terms with the bloodthirstiness of human nature and with the social and cultural structures within which violence comes to expression. There are readers and critics who see his fiction as the glorification of violence, but it is more accurate to describe McCarthy's novels as reminders and rebukes. McCarthy himself, who is notoriously unwilling to talk about his work, noted a decade ago that "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed... . I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."
More recently, he has added this observation as well:
Most people don't ever see anyone die. It used to be if you grew up in a family you saw everybody die. They died in their bed at home with everyone gathered around. Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. To not be able to talk about it is very odd. (Vanity Fair interview, 2005)
This novel clearly does not shy away from the subject of violence and death. And it approaches these realities frankly, mainly because death and violence have already visited the planet in new and devastating ways through warfare, nuclear winter, and the death or near death of everything that previously lived on the face of the earth or in the waters below. In such circumstances, the father and son face the question of the meaning of life--of their own lives--in unavoidably stark ways. The father is determined to keep his son alive and free from harm. The son, alert to the mundane as well as the nightmarish dangers all around, is somehow still committed to an ethic of hospitality, of generosity. If the father is teaching the son how to survive, the son may be teaching the father how to live.
Theirs is a world that rewards extreme caution and wariness. A stranger appearing on the road ahead is almost certainly a threat to their lives. A wisp of smoke in the distance could mean the presence of other humans, just as the flicker of a campfire in the darkness of the night signals potential danger. Abandoned homes, burned-over villages, empty cities--each one in turn no longer reveals the bond of human society and hospitality but instead the strong possibility that depraved and bestial blood cults are too near for comfort. What they witness along the way is indeed horrifying; here is a brief scene of a ragged band of fellow survivors seen by the father and the son, well hidden but too close for comfort:
An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks.... The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. ...They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each. (77/78)
In such a world, the immediate future is the most obvious challenge; the distant future is almost impossible to imagine. Life in a state of nature is almost certain to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In such circumstances, what is the essential education that the parent must provide for a young child, what world must be passed along to the next generation?
Part of that education involves the things they must carry with them and the things they must leave behind. It is grim to note what has so quickly and obviously become the detritus of the civilization they see in ruins all around them--homes, cities, government, books, money, law, institutions, machinery. Whatever cannot provide protection, shelter, or nourishment has no real value. The father finds it increasingly difficult to describe or explain for his son the world that existed before the destruction--he himself finds such descriptions false, fantastic, and if some of those features can be made to sound real, he worries that the boy may lose heart, given a new world in which the former things may have permanently passed away.
There is a great deal to be said about the language of the novel, but considering all that has been lost or jettisoned, the reader cannot help but notice the religious language that echoes throughout this narrative. For all the references to ashes and darkness and the cold, for all the ways that fear and exhaustion, hunger and thirst and weakness can be made manifest through language, the religious language is striking. McCarthy clearly does not consider it an advantage for humans to live in such a stripped-down version of the world; once out of nature, human nature may itself change. When the father or the narrator turns to the language of prayer, communion, and ritual, it is in part a measure of the precarious situation the characters are in, but it is also an articulation of the belief in a power, a presence, and a meaning beyond this pared-down existence.
The religious language is almost always connected to the father's sense of his limited ability to protect and provide for his son. Because the relationship between the father and the son is charged with tenderness and love, each danger brings out the fierce protectiveness of the father. But the love between parent and child is even more pronounced; their conversations are as evocative as their silences. Given the desperateness of their plight and the nightmare they must always return to, it is worth noting that this novel displays more human love and warmth--and the love of being human--than any other of McCarthy's novels. Readers who can endure the radical testing of faith and hope and love in their novel-reading will find here all that they can handle, but with rewards proportional to the challenge.
Note 1: All quotations from the novel are from the hardcover first edition, 2006.
Note 2: The interview I've quoted from is "Cormac Country: Cormac McCarthy would rather hang out with physicists than other writers," by Richard B. Woodward, in Vanity Fair, August 2005.
James VandenBosch teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.