Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I co-host the Glowburn podcast; a podcast about post-apocalyptic roleplaying. I've been a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre since I was very young, being raised as the son of a military man during the cold war. It seemed fated that one day the bombs would drop and we would all wake carrying guns openly in the streets fighting four-armed, two-headed mutants with glowing eyes.

Or at least, that's what we wanted to believe.

But that's fantasy.

The Road hits closer to potential reality. And it isn't glitz and guns and heroic escapes. It's about survival and scraping by in a gray, boring landscape where most of the other inhabitants - when you can find them - want to rape you, kill you, then eat you. Every step is tedious and terrifying.

And yet, somehow, McCarthy has carved out a thing of dark beauty here.

Part of the beauty is due to the sheer economy of words the author uses. Much of the dread is unspoken, implied between the words.

He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him.
Shh, he said. Shh. It's okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I don't know. But its okay now. I'm going to put some wood on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didn't answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt turning.

Simple, and easy to gloss over, but on reflection, this little vignette is terrifying in that it opens a window on a little boys fear of the unexplained, the inexplicable. And much of the world he inhabits, with his guardian father, goes unexplained. There are many answers to many questions, few of which provide any hope.

So hope has to be made on the fly. Faith has to be lit and stoked from within.

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked in the sand for the boy's hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

And this, after the man had washed the boy's hair of the brains of a dead man who had tried to kidnap the boy from his father. Tried . . .

Still, hope is hard to come by.

They scrabbled through the charred ruins of houses they would not have entered before. A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting duct-work. He stood in a livingroom partly burned and open to the sky. The waterbuckled boards sloping away into the yard. Soggy volumes in a bookcase. He took one down and opened it and then put it back. Everything damp. Rotting. In a drawer he found a candle. No way to light it. He put it in his pocket. He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

There is no triumph in such a world. Only pyrrhic victory and a dim candleflame of hope against the gale winds of decay.

But there is, in the end, love and memory, which keep that dim flame lit until the last inch of wick is finally, quietly, consumed.

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