Perishing Earth: RL Greenfield on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Cormac McCarthy, The Road, Knopf

Cormac McCarthy writes a world where it is cold every day and dirty gray or soot black and raining or snowing or sleeting and there are no flowers or birds or people except the lone figures of a man and a boy wandering the withered earth desperate to find something to eat and clean water and a place to rest their bones and get warm and escape the unpredictable mad other survivors out there also roaming the planet in search of food including human flesh if so it be. The world has obviously been bombed into a state of torpor, sterility, and nothingness. It is now a wet filthy clod of destroyed cities and empty households with only these vagrants meandering listlessly through the devastated plains, mountains, cities, houses, barns and buildings everything covered by a gray coat of ash, a god-less silence, elemental darkness and the incessant unbearable cold.

For 241 pages McCarthy traces the steps of father and son in what appears to be the last vestiges of the human race as man and boy pry loose just enough cans of beans and fruits and meats and vegetables from concealed cellars and padlocked closets along the way to squeeze out a few more precious hours of life and extend their simple remaining consciousness with absolutely no future in sight and an equally erased past behind them with only here and there a sliver of memory shooting through the void only to be immediately erased before any meaning or purpose registers on their fleeting awareness. What prevails is the present never ending bleak moment of remaining human consciousness of the swiftly perishing earth and all its once life-giving forms from the opening passage until the very last page.

The novel ends with a shining epigraph or tombstone luminosity transcribed by the author as if to commemorate or offer an explanation for a state of affairs that once existed in the pure primordial past many eons before the descent of man and the debacle of the human experiment here ended. The writing is clean as a knife throughout with never a laboring literary device or esthetic skulduggery. We are simply handed the posthumous world of lame and impotent death and unromantic nothingness. Pass goal and lay down in the road and die. The last luminous paragraph I believe does not fit the book as a whole. That paragraph ought to be placed at the head of the book as an epigraph. It certainly is not part of the narrative proper. It feels like an apologia for the history of the planet—a total non sequitur to the novel The Road.

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