With McCarthy, it begins and ends with the language. Here, in his latest novel, the language is, as usual, stark and beautiful, shot through with unforced poetry.
McCarthy’s in familiar territory with “The Road”, depicting a bleak and unforgiving landscape with sustained, repetitive passages, chord swells in a dark minimalist music by Glass or Gorecki. The subject matter is apocalypse — either nuclear or coming about from some kind of natural catastrophe (it isn’t made clear which) — and its lifeless, gray, withered aftermath.
But there’s beauty here amid the smoking rubble. It isn’t so much that McCarthy directs our attention to the rare blue flower in the forest of ash; to the last sparrow on earth perched on the burned branch. More often the beauty in the novel comes from the ash, from the rubble, and from how McCarthy imbues it all with haunting poetry:
“The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”
McCarthy re-animates this collapsed world through the sheer force of his language and detail. This is how language becomes a redeemer in the novel, as much as the main character’s love for his son, as much as anything can be said to offer redemption against such a blighted backdrop. In a dead sea of mud and ash, McCarthy’s fertile (but never fervid) prose is the raft, its own inventiveness and abundance and steadfastness being the garden growing from the choking blitz-dust.
But even outside of his badlands comfort zone the writing is gorgeous. He spaces his prose generously, lending the work the look and feel of some kind of ancient epic poem (a fortunate decision, since it aligns nicely with blog-era readers’ preferences). Then there’s the sudden silver veins of philosophical insight that cut through the narrative: gnomic utterances, prophesies, lamentations. Perhaps most striking is the dialogue between the father and son — it’s nothing other than true : that’s the only word that fits here, that captures their effortless, genuine language.
Speaking of the Dad/Son relationship in “The Road”, there’s never been a relationship in any novel of McCarthy’s quite like it. There’s been mentors and guide figures aplenty in his novels, sure: like the old man in the Orchard Keeper, or Suttree himself as mentor to his kid sidekick (the one who, most memorably, fucks melons in gardens at night); and then of course there’s the unforgettable Judge in Blood Meridian (though that cunning, treacherous Satan stand-in is a “guide” only in the sense that he leads people places (usually to butcher them)). But there’s been no one who guides, teaches, leads with the kind of ferocious love that the Dad in “The Road” shows his child. It’s the softness, the give, the counterpoise of yield that McCarthy’s works of steely, fearless thrust have never had. It’s the rope over the void.
And in this book, there’s a lot of fucking void.
Finally, the book is, if one chooses to receive it as such, a spiritual one, resonating with voices speaking in between his sentences, in the spaces between paragraphs. The anonymity of the characters and setting give it a wide-open glassiness that lets lights from other times, other books, other realms to shoot through. And the abundance of detail keep it from being too obviously allegorical. This book can be a house for the spirit or a home for the senses and heart, ideally all at once. It can punch and spire through clouds and it can root down into the firm rich soil.