Modern Classics

Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’: A bleakly beautiful journey across a devastated American wasteland

The last in a three-part series about the changing concerns of the road novel.

We live in a world where super-cyclones and the threat of thermonuclear confrontation make headlines with regularity. While the next Ice Age remains overdue, civil wars and violent conflict in Africa and other parts of the world do not distract us greatly from our quest to have a good time and live in style. The dangers of conspicuous consumption and runaway global warming have not made much of a dent in upper-middle-class lifestyles, even as one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world has walked out of a climate agreement. Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Road speaks to this world, engages with this time.

As road novels go, Cormac Mc Carthy’s book delivers shock and awe with the mastery of someone at the pinnacle of his power, taking the art of the novel to unmapped borderlands of the imagination. The beauty of his prose, sketching a burnt, devastated and famished American wasteland, is hard to come by in contemporary fiction.

A bleak and beautiful terminus

On the surface the story is quite straightforward, telling as it does the tale of a post-apocalyptic America, where a father and son are on the road, looking for food and shelter.

It’s not clear how it all ended but “…(t)he clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window.” The shear of light and the chilling descriptions of burnt landscapes and the ashen shroud covering the land suggest a nuclear holocaust. But whatever the specifics, this is certainly an environmental disaster on an unprecedented scale. It’s quite in order that the causes are not explicit, as this allows us to focus on the dreadful aftermath. And on how such scenarios can bring out the worst and sometimes the best in people.

Cormac McCarthy | Image credit: via YouTube
Cormac McCarthy | Image credit: via YouTube

The unnamed father and his nameless son trudge southwards through burnt cities, ash- covered landscapes of charred trees, and the dead everywhere. Only a few have survived. But little is left of their humanity. The spare prose reflects the complete disrobing of our materialistic civilisation and consumer culture.

“They passed through the city at noon of the day following. He kept the pistol to hand on the folded tarp on top of the cart. He kept the boy close to his side. The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day.”

Father and son sleep in deserted houses, making fires with limbs of dead trees, and keep moving, pushing a supermarket cart with their meager belongings. The symbolism of the supermarket cart in a world where there is hardly anything – or, for that matter, anyone – left to produce, sell, or buy, is not lost. They push on; they are headed for the coast. The mother is already dead, and her presence is only evoked when the father remembers.

McCarthy writes a slow-paced, grim and minimalist prose which could be the voice of the last newsreader on earth. Oddly enough it reminds us of the declamatory style of the Beats, especially Ginsberg in Howl or Kerouac’s free-flowing effervescence. These are two styles, contiguous in their contradictions, the preoccupations of two different worlds looking one another in the eye. But the Beat writing is kinetic in its declamations, their lines exude energy, their words are made of fissile material or blossoming summer blooms bursting forth in the reader’s mind. McCarthy’s words on the other hand are depth charges, they pack the power of fusion devices, their thunder reverberates from the depths – we hold our breath as we read him in awe.

But depth charges don’t make for good books. As father and son labour their way across the end-of-days continent, we discover the poetic beauty of his writing. Instead of sinking into despair while describing a guardian-less earth in its death throes, instead of a corpse weighed down by stones in dark waters, McCarthy moves us with the revelatory beauty of his unadorned prose, which forages for the right words in a fictional landscape where words are dying out – returning with gems of description and style that glitter and shine. In this book, the infinite scope of the novel is established once again by one of the masters of the craft.

“The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old chronicle. To seek out the upright…Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.”

In her well researched paper on eco fiction, Sophia David discusses how climate change “affects and alters” our language, pointing at the “loss of words” and also “the production of words”. Writing about McCarthy’s novel, she says:

The Road (2006) is the archetypal novel here, and most effectively conveys the horror of such a landscape. The apocalyptic setting is described in sparse detail; yet each word carefully creates an intensely bleak and evocative landscape. Amongst climate novels, The Road is unique in its literary achievement, profound in its use of imagery and prose.”  

There are others on the road too. Marauding gangs of cannibals, refugees, a man struck by lightning, thieves and a few good guys. Looking for shelter amongst the detritus of civilisation, father and son chance upon a house where in a locked basement they find people slowly being butchered to be eaten.

A series of incidents, including one in which the boy is almost snatched and the father shoots the attacker, keeps them on their guard throughout the journey. They are fighting freezing temperatures, rain and hunger pangs. Supermarkets have been ransacked, abandoned houses yield little besides fear of hidden assailants hungry for human meat, and for a while they survive on morel mushrooms and some shrivelled apples.

This is a world where values and ideals drip away unnoticed, where words themselves have begun to disappear:

“The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.”

They find an abandoned doomsday shelter, well stocked with food and tools and take refuge for a few days. But it is too dangerous to stay long, so they press on, ultimately headed for the ocean.

Will they survive this ordeal till the very end? Will he have to kill his son if they are trapped by the “bad guys”? And will they meet any good guys down the road, who, like them, are “carrying the fire”? These are the questions that the book answers and this and its exquisite language are what keeps us hooked till the end.

A still from
A still from "The Road"

The Biblical symbolism of the father and son carrying the fire is hard to miss, as are the numerous references to god and how the father’s survival instinct is contextualised by the child. “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of god God never spoke.”

Certain repetitions in the conversations between father and son – “It’s all right, we’re all right, okay” – and elsewhere help to deepen the gravity of the author’s voice, imparting a distinct rhythm to the prose. The absence of inverted commas strips conversations of the inconsequential, leaving us with the sheer weight of the dialogue.

McCarthy is one of the great prose stylists of our time and, as Alan Warner writes in his review in The Guardian, he is the granddaddy of a great tradition of the American novel, which he calls the Tough Guy Tradition. Warner writes:

“We can divide the contemporary American novel into two traditions, or two social classes. The Tough Guy tradition comes up from Fenimore Cooper, with a touch of Poe, through Melville, Faulkner and Hemingway. The Savant tradition comes from Hawthorne, especially through Henry James, Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald. You could argue that the latter is liberal, east coast/New York, while the Tough Guys are gothic, reactionary, nihilistic, openly religious, southern or fundamentally rural.

The Savants’ blood line (curiously unrepresentative of Americans generally) has gained undoubted ascendancy in the literary firmament of the US. Upper middle class, urban and cosmopolitan, they or their own species review themselves…But in both content and technical riches, the Tough Guys are the true legislators of tortured American souls.”

There are flashes of remembrance of the lost world along the way. The father remembers the call of migratory birds, he dreams of his dead wife, of the “softly coloured worlds of human love” and the final lines – shimmering, beautiful – are a lament for all that has been for ever lost.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

From the beatific to the desolate

A look at the following passages will show how the visions of McCarthy and Lessing (Mara and Dann: Doris Lessing’s futuristic novel embodies a journey away from our dismal world) intersect at times. The first is from The Road, the next from Mara and Dann. There are many such instances in these books:

“A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss. The silky spills of ash against the curbing. He stood leaning on the gritty concrete rail. Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made”.


“On either side was the landscape that by now she knew so well: dead and dying trees, like sticking-up bones, whitish drifts of dust, the sky yellow with dust and, dotted about among the drought-killed trees, the occasional strong, fresh, green trees, their roots going far down.”

Both these novels, in their very different ways, show how well-equipped this imaginative art form is, in engaging with the major issues of our time. Amitav Ghosh in his acclaimed non-fiction work on climate change (The Great Derangement) often uses the word “uncanny”, communicating an awareness of non-human agency pervading events triggered by climate change. The unfamiliar contours of the disaster portrayed in The Road, as well as the bizarre manifestations of a changed climate in the form of weird and ferocious predators populating Mara and Dann’s world, is one aspect of the uncanny that can be associated with unimaginable changes in the environment.

Ghosh has also pointed out how literature, because of certain biases, has failed to engage with climate and accelerated environmental change, going on to name the works of McCarthy and Lessing amongst a handful of exceptions. Indeed, in the literature of populous countries like India and China, which are seriously polluting the planet with conspicuous consumption of its middle class and rich, there is hardly any imaginative work (Sophia David cites Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People and Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide in her paper on eco-fiction) engaging with these issues.

Lessing and McCarthy’s books delve deeper, looking at how the human spirit, our inherent contradictions, our ethics and morality, face up to disaster and how we cope in trying times. So we have a brother gambling away his sister on the one hand while a child asks his father to share their dwindling food supplies with a starving traveller on the other. Somewhere in between there is a mention of god. The father invokes god from time to time while in the distant future Ifrik, god is forgotten, where his past stature as “An invisible being who controlled their lives” evokes merriment.

The talk of divinity brings the Beats to mind. We learn that Kerouac (‘On The Road’: Jack Kerouac’s madcap novel about wild people in a car gave a voice to a generation) – a Columbia dropout – who was a Catholic linked the word “beat” to beatific vision and considered his character Dean as it embodiment. Dean, in Kerouac’s words, was “a new kind of American saint”, who saw god in bop gurus like Shearman and was “in possession of the key to unlock the door to the mysterious possibilities and richness of experience itself.” Which connects easily with Lucien Carr’s New Vision, Blake’s “eternity in an hour”, and the Beat ideas of “naked self expression” as the seed of creation.

At the heart of Kerouac’s On the Road is this slow-burning quest for “eternity in an hour”, so to speak. This is a quest of the individual. In Howl, Ginsberg, who becomes Karlo Marx in Kerouac’s novel, writes, “Everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!’ The imaginations of Lessing and of McCarthy are more exercised, at least in these two books, by man’s relation with the world outside himself. His engagement with others is largely mediated through this outside world. From beatific visions to negotiating a battered desolate wasteland, the road novel has indeed come a very long way.


Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Trust, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction, will be published shortly.

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