Hemmingway dealt with plenty of horrors in his life – gouges and scrapes from bullfights and deep sea fishing, even the trenches of World War One. But he always had redemptive escapes nearby – Spanish villas, rugged African hills, Florida’s warm waters.
In The Road, Cormac McCarthy has essentially written a Hemmingway story where all the beauty of the natural world has been annihilated. Instead of mountains and streams, there is ash, gray snow and darkness covering a land of dead trees and polluted waterways. Towns have been consumed by raging firestorms, and outlying farmhouses pillaged by small cult-like bands of cannibals.
Through this hellish apocalypse emerge a man and his young son, making their painstaking way south via an old interstate highway – the Road. Both remain unnamed throughout the book, we know little about the past – in one of the few flashback scenes the boy’s mother decides to take her own life with a shard of obsidian rather than face the constant thread of rape and murder.
The book has since gone onto great success – chosen for Oprah’s Book Club and then winning the Pulitzer. The strength lies in the writing itself – each sentence is carved and polished, minimalist yet terribly potent. Imagery of the hellish apocalyptic world is crisp and stark:
“The soft black talc blew through the street like squid ink uncoiling along the sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”
Conversation between the man and the boy is terse, repetitious, often banal – lots of “okays” and one word answers, and it is unmarred by punctuation. But there is a beauty to it minimalism, even in these fragments we see the love of the man for his son – the actions he takes to protect him from all other travelers they encounter on the road.
The man is a true Hemmingway hero – uncomplaining, proficient with his hands, able to repair and utilize machines and tools – even resort to violence when the time calls for it. But the boy is angelic – in later passages as the man succumbs to cancer in his chest – he sees his son as a halo of light.
McCarthy’s triumph is not only that he’s painted so vivid a portrait of hell, but reveals a thin light shining through the black – the persistence of hope. Let’s hope his vision remains forever trapped in these pages – a warning to man’s folly.