Fire of Our Fathers
On The Road
I hope all the fathers among my readers enjoyed a wonderful Sunday. This piece was meant to run yesterday, but alas, I ran out of time! To make up for this, through the end of tomorrow, I’m offering a flash sale on paid annual subscriptions—previously $50, now $30. This will allow you to unlock this post and hopefully many more to come. If you’re currently a free subscriber, enjoy the preview, and while you're at it maybe check out this free essay on my visit to a community kitchen two days ago if you missed it—a piece which didn’t take long to write when I got home, but seems to have quickly become a reader favorite. More free content is coming soon, but I hope you take advantage of the sale while it lasts!
I largely succeeded in reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road before reading what other people had said about The Road. I’d read exactly one critical analysis several years ago and didn’t revisit it. Sadly, I didn’t go in spoiler-free, so in the spirit of doing unto others, I’ll leave spoilers out of this little essay for anyone else who’s never read/been made to read the book. Before you read on, I should issue a disclaimer that I’m not an expert on McCarthy or his corpus. I am, in fact, so far from being a McCarthy expert that he had to die before I read my first McCarthy novel. Furthermore, as I write (on Sunday) I only read it yesterday. (Literally, I read it in one day, mostly in one sitting.) So, to those who have spent somewhat more time thinking about McCarthy than I have, thanks for your patience, and feel free to leave comments on these very first impressions of mine. Also, for the uninitiated, all missing apostrophes in direct quotes are deliberate, because McCarthy was allergic to apostrophes for some reason. Dont ask.
I tend to tread warily into fiction like The Road. Not merely because it’s grim, but because I’m unsure if I trust the author to say something true with the grim. I once wrote about giving notes to an aspiring novelist who had ended his crime story with a senseless bloodbath. I suggested a different ending that was even bloodier, but less senseless. He didn’t get it. He thought I was put off by the darkness, but my idea was bloodier, so how was that less dark? I tried to explain. I’m not sure I succeeded.
Without having done a thorough survey, I suspect some parts of McCarthy’s corpus make less sense than others. What I can say is that The Road is one of those novels where the reader knows within a few pages that he is in good hands. Or, really, a few sentences. It opens with our two archetypally nameless characters, the Man and the Boy, sleeping in the post-apocalyptic woods. The Man wakes first and reaches out to touch the Boy, and we are told that “His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.” I’m not sure why this one sentence should hold such reassurance, but it does to me. Then, a couple pages later, that much-quoted line as the Man scans the landscape and reflects: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”
Much speculation has swirled around McCarthy’s religion, or lack thereof. His last two novels, Stella Maris and The Passenger, delved into the question of faith much more explicitly than The Road, but with still decidedly mixed conclusions. McCarthy was a famously private man, that rare artist who goes about the business of art-making and mostly lets others discuss what exactly it means. In the end, his art seemed to bespeak a fundamental dissatisfaction with every established sense-making narrative on offer, including atheistic ones. He created worlds whose characters can’t believe in God, yet find themselves calling God’s name anyway—to quote the poet Dennis O’Driscoll, “as a woman in a birth ward/calls to her long-dead mother.”
Such is the world of The Road. A world where, as one character puts it, “There is no God, and we are his prophets.”