On The Road

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

A horrible post title but here goes. From McCarthy’s The Road

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 deep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them like eyes. On the road the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

This is one of those breathless examples of writing that McCarthy is so good at putting down in his narrative. This passage is a description of an image outside and behind the major narrative, an image of what the “past” looked like for the Father. The image is so important in the fiction.

I’ve had conversations about nuclear winter, conversations about what major catastrophes might look like, discussions about major losses that may occur in the future on the scale of millenarianism or other end of the current road scenarios. These conversations may or may not have been accurate about the facts and were pretty much speculative. Today, subjects calling on global warming, environmental shifts, and political craziness bring to mind images of change. What would a different future look like? How would institutions change? What if institutions disappeared? McCarthy’s novel avoids these speculative questions by forcing the novel into a small circle of two characters whose world comes and goes in the narrative and whose immediate surroundings are ash, cold, rain, and fear. They have one goal. To reach the coast. After the catastrophe, hope is not the same; there are no goals other than those having to do with survival. But this is a poor summary outside of the experience of the novel itself, where the reader must confront a world similar to Tadeusz Borowski’s in This Way for the Gas. In this world, everything, except for a Father’s love and life for a son and dependence, is flipped and alternate. Compassion cannot be common and the law is gone, destroyed, and not to be brought back in any familiar form. The next block quote is indicative of the novel, plus the impending ending.

The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared. Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts. They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold. They talked hardly at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He’d stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing their in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.

I find lots of play with language here: “incinerate” and “itinerate” and the nights are “still” dead. As an aside, I disagree with the use of crozzled. Steaks are crozzled just before they go into the oven for baking. I would imagine that the hearts here are burned all the way through and not just around the edges. But the final sentence is dead on–not because the future is unimaginable for the Father but because he can do nothing at this point to control it, shape it, or guide his son into it. Incredible helplessness.


5 responses to “On The Road”

  1. susan says:

    So different than my current reading of Kerouac’s On The Road which is a past America. The things learned along the way, however, may hold some resemblance, that being, the heart of man really doesn’t change with change.

    I’m really looking forward to reading this soon. I love the old mixed with the new McCarthy. Short sentences now, but with the imagery so vivid in its concise form. Such an old and overused description of night–still, dark–and yet presented in such a way to make it mean more.

    I would disagree with your analysis of the final sentence as “Incredible helplessness.” Though of course, I haven’t yet read the book that led you to this. To me, the use of the word “tabernacle” stands out as holy hope, or what the father may see within his son as the future.

    Crozzled or not, steaks shouldn’t be baked. In my opinion, anyway.

  2. Steve says:

    Take inch thick, salted and peppered steaks and rub them in olive oil. Grab a nice seasoned pan and sizzle them for a minute and a half or so on each side. Place into hot oven ready at 425F. Roast for about 8 minutes if you like them medium rare.

    Take out and let stand for about 15 minutes.

    Enjoy. Bake = roast.

  3. susan says:

    tx. I’ll try it.

  4. Josh says:

    I agree with Susan here: From the basic details of the book you have provided, an “unimaginable future” from the POV of the Father should be something of great hope to him. It is afterall “glowing” in the wasteland. Reminds me of images of the Holy Grail in Grail literature.

    From a writer’s POV, I like here that McCarthy is (apparently) subtlely forcing the reader to reveal himself by leaving for interpretation whether the “glowing” is “waxing” or “waning”.

  5. Jon Olsen says:

    I have to disagree. Being at the center of the body, shielded from the hottest part of hte fire, perhaps the hearts came away with only a crozzling. And all that’s left is to put them into the last fire, the oven, the furnace beyond the end of the world.

    Or something!