annotation by Lee Stoops
“As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”
~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road (57)
Chilling. Dark. Cold. Hopeless. And yet, The Road is full of love, regardless; both McCarthy’s love of a real story told well and the love a father and son share, even in the face of nothingness. The landscape is America, though the time is epitomic post-apocalyptic. Nothing remains but ash, broken, Spartan roads, and a few, hungry, desperate, withered people. Winter – and it’s not clear if it’s seasonal or nuclear – sets in and color long ago left the world. McCarthy paints a bleak, grim environment and ravages his characters with it. Yet, they never give up. They sustain each other entirely. And that sustenance is the point. Days without food or water, weeks on the road, sleepless and cold and knowing that the only other people alive are eating each other, and moving toward a goal simply for the sake of having a goal – none of these keep the story moving or give it its poignancy. Its strength, its very meaning, exists in the bond of love the father and his son share.
McCarthy’s intentions with the story are clear. He so much as eliminates visual, typeset elements of the page so that everything makes way for the truth of the prose. None of the dialogue is quoted, and only some the time is it tagged. The characters (the boy and his father) remain nameless for the entire story. No states are labeled, no nomenclature of town or geographic shows. Titles and places, even extra ink on the page for apostrophes or quotations, are unnecessary distractions in McCarthy’s vision.
“At the top of the hill he turned and studied the town. Darkness coming fast. Darkness and cold. He put two of the coats over the boy’s shoulders, swallowing him up parka and all.
I’m really hungry, Papa.
Will we be able to find our stuff?
Yes. I know where it is.
What if somebody finds it?
They wont find it.
I hope they dont.
They wont. Come on.
What was that?
I didnt hear anything.
I dont hear anything.
They listened. Then in the distance he heard a dog bark. He turned and looked toward the darkening town. It’s a dog, he said.
Where did it come from?
I dont know.
We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa?
No. We’re not going to kill it.
He looked down at the boy. Shivering in his coats. He bent over and kissed him on his gritty brow. We wont hurt the dog, he said. I promise” (81-82).
McCarthy’s characters engage is continual dialogue, and the speech patterns and choices are masterful. Part of the story’s brilliance lies in the boy’s true form; he is a young boy, witness to a world devastated and lonely, but remaining a young boy. The father recognizes and pities his son’s innocence and forced loss, and he struggles to balance survivalism, reality, and compassion in a world that doesn’t care whether they live or die. McCarthy’s approach to developing the boy’s character through reflection and interaction with his “Papa” is one of the indicators that not a single element of The Road is accidental.
Devoid of chapter breaks, or even long scenes, the story reads like a close observer’s journal accounting of the pair’s journey. Most scenes, sequences, or flashbacks are only pieces on the pages, some spanning two or even several. The technique, if described, sounds choppy, like a series of false starts or gapped prose. However, in the case of The Road, it might not work any other way. The reader is trusted to intuit time, place, emotion, and pace. The story may jump from the man holding his son, protecting him while he sleeps, to a flashback to a time when the boy’s mother was still alive, to the next morning or even several days later. Despite the technique and things left unsaid, the disjointed style, rather than create a disjunct narrative, gives even more truth the story, to their lives, and to the experience as a whole.
“He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we’re still going south.
So we’ll be warm.
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
Yes. That’s okay.
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
And, that’s what The Road is – an experience in life at its most uncertain, most hopeless, most true. As a reader, I read rapt. As a writer, I couldn’t put the book down, even though I needed a hand free to make notes – recording everything he was doing right, when and how he was doing it, and why it worked everywhere it did. The story is spare, made rich by authentic characters and some of the strongest contemporary prose available. I closed the book, inspired and terrified, thinking, “This is what a story can do? This is what I can do with a story?” If Cormac ever reads this: Thank you.