Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Last week, while my family gorged on turkey and pumpkin pie, I feasted on Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic bestseller, The Road, followed by the newly released film adaptation of the novel. The film is true to the spirit of the novel, but doesn’t stir the soul like the author’s stark lyricism.

Let others be merry and bright, I relished my journey through McCarthy’s bleak, dangerous America, gutted by an unexplained disaster and sparsely populated with survivors who trap and eat people, and showing as much perturbation in the process as we might experience shopping for groceries at Safeway.

Yet The Road may be the most weirdly inspirational story of modern American fiction – unlike No Country for Old Men, McCarthy’s last dark tale, which concludes with the depressing implication that evil men often outlast and outsmart the law. In The Road, McCarthy shifts the context: civilization has been extinguished. Guess who fills the breach?

The story follows the struggles and musings of a dying father and his young son, possibly the last “good guys” in the land. Fear and hunger fuel their urgent journey, past the wilderness of brittle falling trees and empty towns stripped by scavengers. The reader joins their erratic pilgrimage to the warmer environs of the Gulf Coast, a destination that offers only the faintest hope of survival.

In Genesis, the intermingled fate of creation and of man is confirmed and blessed. But if you ever wondered how that primeval story might read if Yahweh suddenly hit the rewind button, then The Road will leave you spellbound. The earth is stuck in a perpetual nuclear winter. The remains of men and animals scatter the burnt fields and the grey air is thick with dust, marking “the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Still, the father retains a deeply human fascination with creation’s origins: “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.”

Initially, the reader assumes that a primal instinct for survival prevents the father from adopting his wife’s desperate solution to their plight: soon after her son is born, she commits suicide, deeming it a gentler fate than the more likely prospect of a violent, brutal end. She wants to take her son with her, but the father refuses and embarks on a seemingly impossible path. “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you,” he tells the boy.

Bereft of the gratuitous beauty of nature and the consolations of its ordered rituals, the father struggles to believe in his paternal mission, let alone God. Indeed, despite the awful loneliness, strangers are feared, not welcomed. The standards of decency are drastically lowered: “Do you eat children?” asks the boy, warily assessing the true intentions of a man on the road. The death rattle of the world fulfills Old Testament warnings: “There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who is not honored here today.”

But as their pilgrimage rolls forward, as they care for each other and speak of ultimate things – of sin, death, love, and sacrifice, their community of two adopts the grace-filled elements of a sacrament.

Starving, filthy and desperate, the father and son take part in “some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.” He strokes the boy’s head and thinks: “Golden chalice, good to house a god.” The son’s purity of soul provides a balm for the father’s broken heart. The boy leads him to the wellspring of love and bids him to drink. Contemplating his son, he thinks, “if he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”

What does it mean to believe in love? And if you do believe in love, are you halfway to believing in God, the source of all love?

When I was in my twenties, newly reconciled with the Church, I was given a book, I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux. The title puzzled me, as if the notion was self-evident and didn’t require further explanation. But more than two decades later, reflecting on the missteps of my own life and witnessing the normalization of selfishness in the culture at large, I find St. Therese’s statement of faith both radical and urgent.

Most book and film reviewers sift through The Road to try to identify the source of the environmental disaster that shrouds the land in ash. It is far more difficult to speak of the ravages of sin that remain hidden, but no less destructive. Why does this beautiful and terrible story inspire? It testifies to a love stronger than death. Evil will not have the final word.

“You have my whole heart,” the father tells his son at the end. Still, the boy remains fearful of what might come at the next bend in the road, what darkness of purpose might lurk in the heart of a stranger – or even within his own heart.

“But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?” he asks his father, in a reference to a grim vision that has plagued his whole childhood.

“Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Maryland-based Catholic journalist; she blogs at The Cathoholic. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, she leads Theology of the Body study groups.