Cormac McCarthy - The Road

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Carriers of the Fire

Mar 11, 2009
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Believable

Cons:Unrelievedly horrifying with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the end

The Bottom Line: As long as Earth nations retain nuclear weapons and "The Road" has not been realized, it will still be relevant.


Here is how Harper's magazine might review "The Road" -- by the numbers.  The last three numbers are of necessity speculative:

Number of people the man talks to (excluding God): 6
Number of named places in the book: 2
Miles covered by main characters: 700-800
Average miles covered per day: 5-10 (depending on food availability)
Number of shootouts: 2
Number of sex scenes: 0
Number of years after total nuclear war: 8-10
Percentage of the US population which has succumbed to various causes in those years: 99
Percentage of survivors for whom cannibalism sustains life: 65
Number of persons in the largest group encountered by the man and the boy: 100-200

I couldn't help but be reminded of Threads, another post-nuclear-war story which honestly addresses the issue of nuclear winter, and of "The Last Ship," whose protagonists have to go all the way to remote Polynesia to survive.  In "Threads," of course, the nuclear winter ends in less than one year and the survivors immediately apply themselves to growing food.  This indeed was predicted in Paul Ehrlich and Carl Sagan's 1983 book "The Cold and the Dark," a book which grew out of an article published in "Science" magazine the same year.

I picked up "The Road" in the Houston airport two days ago and finished it before my plane landed in Albuquerque.  It was that good.  The following day, having returned to Gallup, I went looking for "The Cold and the Dark," which I consider the definitive book on nuclear winter, in the public library.  While I didn't find it I did find "The Long Darkness," the first chapter of which is an excerpt of material Sagan also contributed to "The Cold and the Dark."  I will excerpt his excerpt of the Science magazine article to give you some idea of what the protagonists of "The Road" are up against:

"It is clear that the ecosystem effects alone resulting from a large-scale thermonuclear war could be enough to destroy the current civilization in at least the Northern Hemisphere.  Coupled with the direct casualties of over one billion people, the combined intermediate and long-term effects of nuclear war suggest that eventually there might be no human survivors in the Northern Hemisphere." (p. 35) 

Sagan also makes clear in Table 2, pages 24-25, that the two biggest killers would be the cold and the food shortages.  How long the nuclear winter would actually last would depend on how many bombs, how big, and what their targets were.  In Figure 2 on page 22, Sagan examines five of 17 variants of nuclear war he created.  The most destructive is Case 17, described as a 10,000 megaton "severe" cities and counterforce exchange.  In northern mid-latitudes in that scenario, "After more than two months, minimum temperatures of -47 degrees C (-53 degrees F) are reached -- temperatures characteristic of the surface of Mars.  The soot falls out comparatively rapidly, and the slowness of the recovery is due to stratospheric dust.  The temperatures return to the freezing point only after about a year." (p. 23)

The world imagined by McCarthy then is hardcore even as post-apocalyptic fiction goes.  The near extinction of humanity has come about from the nuclear winter which never ended, although temperatures most of the year are above freezing (it snows in autumn and the man holds out hope that the snow might melt, in one scene).  The man has not seen the sun since the day before the bombs (which apparently arrived at 1:17 AM Central time) and his son has never seen it.  It is not clear that anyone in North America is still doing agriculture (although there are a few references to "communes" as the only alternative to a nomadic existence, but these are not places most survivors are allowed into).  When the man, in one of numerous scenes where he ransacks a house, comes across a packet of seeds, it has no value to him even as a trading item; he does not take it with him.  All other mammal species appear to be extinct along with most fish and birds, making other humans, however scrawny, the only viable source of food for most survivors.
 
The man's wife, the  boy's mother, walked away from the two of them some months before the beginning of "The Road."  She went willingly to her death because it became clear to her that the three of them had nothing better to look forward to.  A flashback to this scene reveals that she had even come to think of Death as a lover in some ways.  When the man finally throws away his wallet, her photograph is the last thing in it he will give up.

The difference between the man and his wife is that while the man realistically fears that he and his son will become prey to cannibals, his wife is certain of it, and cannot bear to go on from day to day knowing how it ends.  But I did say there was a faint glimmer of hope at the end, so you know that's not how this book ends.  That faint glimmer of hope is not the end of the nuclear winter, although that's probably how I would have written the book.  That's one of the indicators that Cormac McCarthy is a better writer than me.

Even in this hopeless environment, the man tries to encourage, even inspire the boy by explaining that since they don't eat their fellow humans, they are "the good guys" or "carriers of the fire."  Like any child the boy has many questions for the man and like in our world there are sometimes no good answers to his questions.  These exchanges are the only thing that keep both characters going throughout most of the book.  Ultimately, whether they are carriers of the fire is the question the boy will ask anyone else he meets.

Later this month when I leave Gallup for good I am going to give this book to a girl who mostly reads murder mysteries.  I will explain to her that in this story it doesn't matter who pulled the trigger.  All that matters is what's left, one's family.  And that is all I can say about "The Road" except that I will certainly see the movie when it comes out.


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