When I need solace I turn to the novels of Cormac McCarthy. There's comfort in reading about a man being graphically, stoically bludgeoned or the fall of a mule from a cliff so lovingly described that it becomes a new sort of poetry. Some have argued that McCarthy glories in this violence, that he enjoys dropping his hapless or hopeless characters into situations they can't control and seeing what happens next (usually someone loses a limb or an eye or a head), but I don't think enjoyment has anything to do with it.
His work has been described as "regeneration through violence" or a new take on the old frontier myth about spilled blood and Manifest Destiny or some other crap that ritualizes terror in order to make something meaningful out of it. But the glory of Cormac McCarthy is that he's never tried to make anything out of the horrific violence that sparkles throughout his stories like veins of gold. Instead, he lets it stand naked, and we are left to do with it what we will.
When I picked up a copy of his latest book, The Road, I remembered all the good times I'd had reading about bands of marauding killers, cold-blooded assassins, and irascible necrophiliacs while sipping lemonade on the old porch swing. I was hoping for more of the same, having scanned the almost-unanimous adulatory reviews that have praised The Road as "achingly poetic" and "savage beauty" and "remarkable and unforgettable" and "the novel of the year."
I opened the book and was immediately concerned. The elevated language of Blood Meridian and Suttree and even All the Pretty Horses was gone. No longer was McCarthy sounding like a scarily sober Faulkner or a landlocked Melville; now he was doing a slightly above-average Hemingway impersonation. Everything in The Road is surface, from the relationship between the father and son to the unnamed apocalyptic event that sets them walking through a landscape so dead it becomes almost comic. (I played a game wherein I took a drink for every occurrence of terms like "blasted landscape" or "cauterized terrain" or "a stark black burn." Fun and very, very incapacitating.)
There's always been a subtle current of comedy alongside or maybe even within all the violence and bloodshed and death in McCarthy's work. It comes from the pitch-perfect dialects of his amoral killers, bumbling sheriffs, and luckless victims; it comes from the violence and our tendency to laugh when so overcome by horror that we're incapable of doing anything else.
Unfortunately, in The Road, the humor is in short supply. In this "ashen scabland" (drink) everything is dead. Even McCarthy's writing seems deadened by the "blankets of drifting ash" (drink) that cover the land. He's still adept at conveying the state of the natural world with its "naked woodlands" (drink), "gray slush" (drink), and "dead sedge" (drink!), but he's exchanged the violent and terrible human interactions of his previous work for a sustained meditation on the slow walk toward death and the paternal tenderness it inspires.
This is not what I want from Cormac McCarthy. There are hundreds of authors who will show me the facile triumph of love over death. Sometimes I need to be reminded that the world is a chaotic, torturous place that none of us are going to survive for long. What I don't need to be shown, especially around Christmas, is a suspiciously Christlike child and a forced, end-of-the-world spirituality. Early in the book, the man says about his son, "If he is not the word of God God never spoke." I distrusted that statement immediately. McCarthy hadn't earned it then and I don't think he earns the redemption that comes later.
I hear what you're saying: But what about the apocalypse? Isn't everyone dead, and the ones who lived are either cannibals or soon to be dinner? It seems pretty bleak to me. Yes, it's bleak. It's nuclear winter; of course it's bleak. And I'm not going to ruin the ending for you, but if you're a fan of deus ex machina salvation and hope for the future in these dark, dark times, well, you won't be disappointed. I, on the other hand, was looking for a little old-fashioned nihilistic violence without any cheap moralizing. I'm sorry to say that, for once, Cormac McCarthy let me down. But he did get me pretty drunk.