To be alive in a world that is dead

A father and son push an old grocery cart and debate ethics in civilization's ruins.

By

Zombies aren't usually found in the oeuvre of your average National Book Award winner (well, I mean besides Joyce Carol Oates). But then, some critics have argued that a few of Cormac McCarthy's novels, such as "Blood Meridian," should properly be read as horror. With his newest novel, The Road, I doubt they'll find many detractors.

McCarthy takes such B-movie plot devices as an apocalyptic future, cannibalism, and scenes that could have been cut straight from "Night of the Living Dead" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to craft an existential moral debate about what it means to be alive in a dead world.

Last year, in a rare interview with Vanity Fair magazine, McCarthy commented that he regards as "not serious" writers who don't focus on death. "Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is." While some of us may find this a rather limited worldview, you've got to give the guy credit: He really sticks to his guns.

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"The Road," like many of McCarthy's novels, features homeless males on the move. Only instead of horses, the unnamed father and son have an old grocery cart with one wobbly wheel, loaded with canned goods and dirty blankets. And their journey makes "All the Pretty Horses" look like a trip to Club Med.

The two are among the few who have survived the end of civilization, which McCarthy describes as "a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions."

They now inhabit a cauterized horrorscape, where ash falls from the sky and the sun is no longer visible. As the novel opens, the man and the boy, – who seems to be somewhere between ages 8 and 11 – are heading south to the sea, trying to avoid the roving bands of cannibals (fans of Joss Whedon's "Firefly" will recognize them as close cousins of the Reavers) who hunt the looted landscape.

The survivors are not necessarily the lucky ones. The boy's mother committed suicide, rather than continuing to live in fear. "We're not survivors. We're the walking dead in a horror movie," she exclaims when the man tries to talk her out of killing herself. "We used to talk about death, she said. We dont anymore. Why is that?"

When the man says he doesn't know, she responds, "It's because it's here. There's nothing left to talk about."

As for the man, as long as the boy is alive, he has a reason to keep fighting. "He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke."

The love between the father and the son is one of the most profound relationships McCarthy has ever written, and the strength of it helps raise the novel – despite considerable gore – above nihilistic horror.

The book's other redeeming feature is the moral debate that McCarthy carries on throughout the novel about whether there is room for goodness in extremis. The sides are represented by the boy, who wants to help other survivors, and his father, who will do anything he has to to keep his son alive.

The boy has a few other questions along with his plaintive refrain of "Are we still the good guys?" These include: "Are we going to die? Would we be better off dead?"

And, poignantly, "What would you do if I died?

If you died, I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.

Okay."

The intricately knotted sentences from earlier works such as "Suttree" have almost vanished. Instead, McCarthy employs a stripped-down (for him) allegorical style loaded with biblical language. (Fans of McCarthy's use of language shouldn't worry: There's still room for words like "claggy" or "discalced.")

As their pilgrimage continues, the man and boy occasionally discover small bits of grace – morel mushrooms, an unopened can of Coca-Cola that has kept its fizz and tastes remarkably good. But it's their love that keeps this father and son, and the reader, going past the despair. Fans of McCarthy's brutal world view may not approve, but other readers will welcome the unexpectedly hopeful ending.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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