Posted by: dougery | August 11, 2010

Are You One of the Good Guys? (or Please, Sir, Don’t Eat Me)

About 15 minutes ago I finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s novel the Road. And then while walking down an idyllic mountain path a small white butterfly weaved and bobbed in front of me as if on strings. The world, it wasn’t a devastated hellscape after all. There were bright green leaves shushing in the trees and not a film of gray ash choking out the light of the sun. ‘We still have a chance!’ I screamed out in my head.

It’s that kind of a book.

My history with the Road is circuitous. I’d purchased the hardcover years ago in a second hand bookshop for one Abraham Lincoln (a fiver, not a penny) and it sat gathering dust on a shelf for a long time. L stumbled upon it first. She was looking for something to read (the woman consumes books like my brother devours cheez-its) and the post-apocalyptic theme won her over. It was re-shelved just days later and I was bludgeoned with “You know, you should really read the Road.”

My only previous experience with McCarthy was Blood Meridian and the Coen Bros cinematic adaptation of No Country For Old Men. Both, in my mind, are masterpieces. The former is a pitch perfect western so bleak and violent it makes the nastier bits of the Bible look like Dora the Explorer. The latter is simply one of the best films of the past 10 years. So the Road had a brilliant pedigree and yet a closet full of huge-ass shoes to fill. This apocalypse story could only be ‘minor’ McCarthy. Or so I assumed. Although I’d still place Blood Meridian a few pegs higher, the Road is a heartbreaking exercise in simplicity, honesty and beauty.

the plot?

Father and son walk and try not to die.

Although at first glance it might appear anything but, the novel is nothing if not hopeful. And not in the Obama-esque “we can all do a little bit better if we put our minds to it” way. Hopeful in the “the world is full of evil that threatens to put the fire out but we will not let it go out no matter the cost” way. The book constantly asks the reader what we imagine life is worth and what Good might possibly mean.

According to the Road, the Good Guys:

1. don’t eat other people.
2. don’t kill unless under threat of death
3. don’t steal.
4. don’t lie.
5. keep the fire alive.
6. have guns (and use them).
7. have bad dreams.
8. Tell stories.

What is more interesting is how the nameless father and son handle the more tricky situations. Does one attempt to save others if it will almost certainly end in death for all of the ‘Good Guys’? Does one feed the sick and nearly dead if one is already starving? How do you protect yourself against those who wish to do you harm and no longer listen to reason?

McCarthy has always had a penchant for Baroque wordplay. The world as holocaust lends itself to his unique style, his way of using bleak sentence fragments to render something that keeps festering larger in your head or, conversely, the bizarre word choice and portmanteaus he trots out in long sequences and run-ons where the fireblasted setting can’t possibly support such floral description and the dissonance makes a dead world that much more grim.

The novel is quite an accomplishment. When I put the book down I was convinced that ‘This is the Way the World Will Actually End.’ That this is both the worst possible thing that could ever happen and that this ‘worst of all possible worlds’ wasn’t so bad after all. Because there are Good Guys. And they won’t let the fire go out.

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