Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review :: The Road :: Cormac McCarthy

Last night I felt the last snow of this Chicago winter. This has been a winter for snow--deep snow, wet snow, thunder snow. Today the sun is shining; you couldn't tell that the sky was spitting snow last night.

I was driving home from work when the Blizzard of 2011 hit Chicago. As I drove toward the lake on Howard Street, the snow hit like a wall. Newscasts forewarned catastrophe. Once I'd found parking, I marched toward my apartment head-down to keep the snow out of my eyes. Drifts were already filling the courtyard of my building. My wife and I took shelter in our apartment reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter while the wind shook our windows and the sky flashed lightning.

All told, Chicago received 20.9 inches of snowfall. Chicago Public Schools canceled school for the first time in twelve years, and then did so for a second day while giant snow eaters cleared roads. I spent forty-five minutes digging out my car (which was buried up to the windows), twice.

I had finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road a few weeks earlier. Apocalyptic scenarios were on my mind. And then there I was, in the middle of the biggest snowstorm to hit Chicago since 1967. The city shut down. Maybe this was a glimpse of the end.

But I think not. In fact, I think this is a backward way of thinking. See, the next day, when the sky cleared to let the bitter cold sunlight illumine the shining city, Cindy and I went for a walk. We pulled on snow boots and muffled ourselves in scarves, and we struck out to cut a trail toward (of course) Dunkin Donuts. What I saw were traces of sled tracks, a recent immigrant family from Africa digging out their minivan, a tired buy behind the counter pouring coffee, parents exploring the snowscape with their toddlers. This wasn't the apocalypse. That came later.
McCarthy never narrates What Happened. You can study the book from cover to cover, and all you come away with are, at most, hints toward what's happened to the world. A blinding light before the dark.

McCarthy writes with true instincts here. The apocalypse--the unveiling--is not the event. Instead, the apocalypse is what's left afterward.

In The Road, the event leaves behind hunger and lung disease, homelessness, roving hordes, fire, cannibalism, cold. A dying, grey world where ultimate loyalties rub raw against the cold and dim sunlight. In Chicago, our unveiling came as the snow began to melt. A look at the sidewalk and the gutter named who we really are: battered folding chairs used to save dug-out parking spaces, used condoms, empty Cheetoes bags, muddy hats and children's gloves and scarves, plastic liquor bottles, empty cigarette packs, pieces of bumper and windshield wipers, soggy newspapers and flyers advertising currency exchanges.

Peter writes in his second letter, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (2 Pet 3.10) This is the apocalypse: the laying bare of who really are, what we've wrought in the places we live. The phrase will be laid bare--the Greek term is euJreqhvsetai. An alternative translation is will be found out.

This is what McCarthy's The Road does: it lays us bare. The world we're creating, the abyss of our instinctual self-interest, our fascist ethnocentrism--we see them clearly. But McCarthy also holds us up in the father and the son. We love the father and the son. We love them even as we wonder who they (and we, too) are:
He rinsed the empty tin with water and gave it to the child to drink and that was that. I should have been more careful, he said.
The boy didn't answer.
You have to talk to me.
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
He sate there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We're still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
 Who are the good guys? Are we the good guys? If everything but that wed to our souls were stripped away from, would we be good?

The son embodies this question throughout the book. We are the father. I think I often have this conversation within myself.
They sat by the side of the road and ate the last of the apples.
What is it? the man said.
We'll find something to eat. We always do.
The boy didn't answer. The man watched him.
That's not it, is it?
It's okay.
Tell me.
The boy looked away down the road.
I want you to tell me. It's okay.
He shook his head.
Look at me, the man said.
He turned and looked. He looked like he'd been crying.
Just tell me.
We wouldn't ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if were starving?
We're starving now.
You said we werent.
I said we werent dying. I didnt say we werent starving.
But we wouldnt.
No. We wouldnt.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we're the good guys.
And we're carrying the fire.
And we're carrying the fire. Yes.
The apocalypse strips everything away. It's what left, after the unforeseen event, that is our revelation.

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