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, Faulkner-inspired paragraphs.
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 work?
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 throttle him.
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.