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Tom Chaney: There Is No God and We Are His Prophets

Of Writers And Their Books: "There Is No God and We Are His Prophets." Tom reports on Cormac McCarthy's depiction of apocalyptic despair in a style as spare as the bleakness of the dimming world. This column first appeared 2 August 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Early Visitors to the Horse Cave

By Tom Chaney

"There Is No God and We Are His Prophets"

In The Road by Cormac McCarthy [Vintage, 2006] a son and his father inhabit a world in "which there is no 'later', this is later." The landscape is desolate and corpse-strewn.

There is no sun. There is dust and haze.

The pair trudge through a landscape of apocalyptic despair; of corpses melted into asphalt; through struggles for a remaining can of peaches; through declining health in their quest to reach the distant sea.

They follow the road by hazy day and sleep away from the road in the fearsome night where fellow travelers, sparse though they be, "have nothing to offer but cruelty and danger."

The boy is now about seven. Born after the catastrophe to a mother who committed suicide, he must learn all the now meaningless commonplaces of language. "As the crow flies" means nothing to one born in a world with no crows and where nothing flies.

The boy is doomed to rickets in a world where there is no vitamin D and where the sun has abdicated its role -- circling the blasted earth behind the impenetrable cloud of dust.

Redemption comes only in McCarthy's style. "By day, the banished Sun circles the Earth like a grieving mother with a lamp."

"They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts." Yet even the hope of street addicts is absent -- begging is not possible because no one is better off.

They "looked like something out of a death camp." But there is no "out" here. The entire globe is now a death camp. Inmates only -- no guards.

"Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world."

Yet, on father and son trudge. Father slipping away in the night so the son will not be awakened by his worsening cough. The son fading from joy day by day. Their final hope a pistol with two bullets the father hopes he will have the courage to use.
We're going to be okay, aren't we Papa?

Yes. We are.

And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

That's right.

Because we're carrying the fire.

Yes. Because we're carrying the fire. "
Some hope remains, according to reviewer Benjamin Whitmer. Father to son there is some small bit of meaning retained. Each is kept alive by the other. They refuse to kill. "They don't steal from the living, they help where it is possible to do so, and most importantly in the novel's symbolic structure, they don't eat other people."

McCarthy's style is as spare as the world is bleak. Punctuation is reduced to periods and the occasional apostrophe. Yet a not sentimental hope is present in the face of certain oblivion. Man keeps going even if there is no "here," here -- no Godot possible. "This is what the good guys do" the father tells his son, "They keep trying. They don't give up."

A reviewer for the Guardian News observes "Part of the achievement of The Road is its poetic description of landscapes from which the possibility of poetry would seem to have been stripped, along with their ability to support life."

And memory fades. . . "The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true."

Yet, the father promises not to let the boy go into the darkness alone. And at the father's death a family finds the boy. The mother tells him of brook trout in a stream in the mountains -- lost.

As critic Mark Holcomb observes, The Road is a continuation of the social erosion running through McCarthy's work -- "a heartsick accounting of irretrievable extinction."

"The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake. They went on. In the nights sometimes now he'd wake in the black and freezing waste out of softly colored worlds of human love, the song of birds, the sun."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-08-03 03:27:48
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