In 1983, President Reagan ordered missiles sent to Europe to protect the NATO countries and the USSR reacted rather badly to what they perceived was a direct threat. We learned later that our two nations had been as close, if not closer, to a nuclear exchange as we were in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During this extraordinary and tense time, a question loomed in the sky for many: what would you do? I live in a metropolitan area known to be on the USSR’s nuclear missile target list. If someone had pushed the button in Moscow, we’d have had approximately 30 minutes left to life as we knew it. What would you do if you knew you had only 30 minutes left to live? This question blazed through most conversations. The one answer that has always stuck with me came from a scientist, a biologist, who stated emphatically that he’d drive to where the projected ground zero would be. He could not imagine the world after a nuclear attack, nor would he want to live in it.
Cormac McCarthy, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, has imagined America after some sort of widespread catastrophe that occurred several years before. His descriptions of the landscape and weather suggest a post-nuclear winter. Desolate, burned-out and cold. He tells the story through a third person personal point of view, homing in on the experience of a man and his young son walking on the road. They travel south, but this road trip is far different from any other road trip I’ve seen, read or experienced. McCarthy explores how human beings would survive, what the landscape would be like, the weather, availability of food and water, and how human beings would interact. The young boy asks about their status as “good guys” and who the “bad guys” are — McCarthy proceeds to give them the experiences to show who each are.
McCarthy’s prose pulls the reader down into the maelstrom of this primitive world with what a poet friend called “Anglo-Saxon words.” They are strong words, hard-sounding words, unusual and old. He described a man’s teeth as being “claggy,” dawn as “chary,” hands as “claws scrabbled.” I kept a notepad and pen next to me as I read in fascination both of the story and the use of language which supported the world he described. Some other favorites:
- “The plaster ceiling was bellied in great swags….”
- “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
- “…a sound without cognate….”
- “Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.”
And some interesting words: granitic, meconium, rachitic, colliculus, seawrack, pampooties, pipeclayed, swale, chert, wimpled, torsional, middens, knurled, stoven….
His use of prepositions also interested me. Instead of camping on land, they camped in it. Instead of standing on the floor, they stood in it.
The man has a pair of binoculars at the beginning, and McCarthy describes him as “glassing” the landscape or road when he looks through them. The man “laved up the dark water” when getting water for them to drink. The prose also has an off-rhythm feel to it, like it’s somehow off kilter but definitely not flowery. These are two males he’s writing about in this story, and there are only one or two women that they meet, never under happy circumstances. But then all the people that they meet are strangers. The man and his son are friends to each other because they have no one else, “each the other’s world entire.”
I was prepared for a depressing book when I first picked it up, and a violent one because I’d heard that McCarthy’s stories can be brutally violent, but I wasn’t prepared for the horror at their experiences or the fear I felt for these two characters or for the despair I felt in my heart for humanity. I understood why that scientist had responded the way he had back in 1983.
This novel will haunt me for the rest of my life, much as A Canticle for Liebowitz (by Walter M. Miller, Jr.) has since I read it in high school or the movie Testament. I recommend it strongly, but also with the warning that it’s not for those who want fun entertainment or for the faint of heart. This story will change you.