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BY Stephen Mirarchi
Until a few
years ago, the majority of people familiar with Cormac McCarthy were graduate
students in humanities, professors of English or attentive advanced-placement
high schoolers. The latter were treated one year to a passage from the author’s
philosophically dense novel The Crossing and
expected to analyze McCarthy’s trademark style: minimal punctuation, a
prophetic tone evocative of the Old Testament, arcane vocabulary and sentences
ranging from stark, Hemingway-esque declarative statements to labyrinthine,
McCarthy’s previous novel, All
the Pretty Horses, had topped the best-seller lists and won the
National Book Award in 1992, but the reclusive author had given only one
interview in decades, eschewing the routine book talks and lectures.
With the publication of No
Country for Old Men in 2005, however, interest in McCarthy’s work
expanded. McCarthy had toned down the philosophy and amplified the action,
presenting characters and situations just as menacing and intriguing, but
without the heady digressions. The Coen brothers took up direction of the film
version in 2006, and later that year, McCarthy published The
Road, a gothic travelogue of a nameless father and son clinging to
the last vestiges of life in post-fallout America. An alchemical distillation
of McCarthy’s strengths, The Road won a
Pulitzer Prize in April of 2007, less than three weeks after Oprah Winfrey
added the title to her famed book club.
The obligatory television interview
followed. In June of 2007, millions of Oprah viewers first met a decidedly
agnostic McCarthy. He expressed doubts about God — his conviction varying from
day to day — and claimed a person doesn’t have to know to whom one’s prayers
are addressed in order to pray.
Perhaps most telling was a reluctant
line about gratitude. Considering all his success — including huge honorariums
that would show up right when he needed them — McCarthy admitted he didn’t know
whom to thank. As Michael Novak argues in his latest book of natural theology, No
One Sees God, thanksgiving among atheists is an “unfulfilled
desire,” for if they do not believe in the transcendent, how are they to offer
praise for the ineffable beauty both believer and nonbeliever recognize
suffusing the world?
Yet McCarthy knows where those
thoughts lead, and his work has been careful to condemn a chance-based cosmos.
But if McCarthy will not affirm a Creator, where does that leave the thrust of
His most accessible book, The
Road — the movie adaptation of which will open, likely to big box
office numbers, in November — provides some affirming answers. Even as McCarthy
claims that his work flows from some unconscious part of him, strong elements
of his cradle Catholicity perdure and, indeed, build up that very hope for
which Oprah praised the novel.
The most obvious of these elements
is the movement of spiritual desolation and consolation throughout the book.
The father carries with him a terrible burden: His wife committed suicide, and
her final words enjoined him and their son to do the same. Having not heeded
her despairing advice, the father, when coming upon dangerous situations,
encounters fierce interior trials. In the first 20 pages, for instance, man and
boy discuss wanting to die in order to be together. It’s a horrendous dialogue
in its own right. Just after, the father is beset with an unholy desire for a
hardened heart. He tells God that if he does get to see him, his plans are to
Such frustration seems not
unreasonable in dire circumstances, and the man experiences a strong
consolation not long thereafter: a moving memory of the “perfect day of his
childhood,” the most vivid and beautiful extended passage in the book.
To enforce the need for perseverance
in spiritual desolation, and to make sure we notice the pattern, McCarthy
includes another set within a few pages. After a distorted nativity scene — the
father holds his shivering boy to him against the devastating cold — a nearly
blasphemous sacrament scene follows. The boy catches a single snowflake “in his
hand and watche[s] it expire there like the last host of Christendom.” The
father resists this temptation to hopelessness, and after another brief
confrontation with evil thoughts — “The world at last would all be lost” — the
man receives a consoling daydream of better days with his wife. The vision is
rife with sensible details. He does not receive it with proper attribution;
indeed, he throws it back into God’s face, as if the memory were entirely of
his own making.
Yet the man’s inability to recognize
fully the consolation does not detract from the pattern McCarthy lays out for
us, one especially consonant with the endurance of desolations and the solace
of consolations in St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Many such sets figure
prominently in the book. Catholics can marvel at both the father’s purgation in
the face of such dark nights and the son’s spiritual flowering as he learns to
accept peace into his troubled heart.
One temptation, however, strikes at
the core of their relationship. As they spy others on the road and investigate,
the father hears an accusing voice: You have no fathers in heaven,
no afterlife at all, and all your efforts are void. The father
cannot respond, and his silence speaks volumes. Why educate the boy in
survival, or expose him to the evils of the road, if his carrying forward the
flame of the indwelling spirit is all for naught?
They spot an abandoned, untouched
house — the unlikeliest of treasures. As they eat for the first time in days,
the father warily receives the consolation, admitting that he believes in his
“fathers” watching from heaven, but that those ancestors watch “for a thing
that even death cannot undo” and, not seeing it, will abandon them. The father
confronts his fears in this prayer, seeing the earlier desolation for its
mendacity and pinpointing its sting: If he fails to endure, will he be lost
forever? This honesty opens the way for the father to allow the boy to grow,
and in the coming events, the boy does. He even takes over the reins. No wonder
the father, near death, sees in his son a “tabernacle.”
Such moments, far from few, defy The
Road’s typical evaluation as a “bleak novel of postapocalyptic
despair,” as Roger Ebert recently wrote. In father and son’s commitment to each
other in such harrowing trials, we glimpse not a wasteland, but what Pope
Benedict XVI has called “a path of purification and growth in maturity, a
journey of hope” — without which no suffering can be redemptive.
Stephen Mirarchi, Ph.D., teaches
American literature and theology
at Jesuit High School Tampa.