by Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 241 pages, $24
A father and son trudge through the burned-over country, alone in the gray winter landscape except for roving bands of cannibals (“the bad guys,” as the father explains). Hiding in the woods by night, creeping forth by day, they ferret in ruined houses for a tin of food or a tattered blanket. (In the father's brooding remembrances, no governments are mentioned and no politics are inveighed against, but the reader may deduce that the great destruction, now several years in the past, was caused by nuclear missiles.) The father is growing weaker; his coughing fits have begun to bring up blood; in his revolver only two bullets remain. Father and son have been abandoned, not long since, by the woman who is wife and mother to them.
Terminally weary of the daily grind of avoiding rape and anthropophagy, she has gone off into the cinders (“I've taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.” “Death is not a lover.” “Oh yes he is”) to open a vein (“She'd do it with a flake of obsidian. He'd taught her himself”). The widower is continuing to struggle southward, toward the coast, now coaxing, now toting his spindly son, cursing God and wondering where they will find their next can of corn.
It's a foolproof set-up for thrills, chills, and a view of the naked human spirit—poor bare fork'd thing, sans law, sans food, sans baths, sans everything. The book that results, however, is curiously incurious about the human spirit. Dramatically inert, it sits in the road spinning its wheels, rather than taking its readers from the old world into the putatively new. In part this is because McCarthy has employed a style that is so decidedly a relic of pre-apocalyptic times, a style plumply redolent of the old dispensation and of the kind of writers'-workshop prose that used to pass for art: “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.” “Raw cold daylight fell through from the roof. Gray as his heart.” McCarthy wants to conjure exhaustion, depletion, starvation; to do so he concocts an acceptable base of terse dialogue. But to this thin broth he adds big dumplings of faux-epical poeticizing and chunks of gratuitous simile. There are also gristly bits of editorializing: “The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.”
The result is a congealed stew of incongruous style, a pot of literary leftovers. Civilization may have died but Creative Writing, like the cockroach, apparently cannot be killed.
Another problem is that the world post-apocalypse doesn't seem much different from the world pre-apocalypse. If life is best understood (as McCarthy has tried for years to show us) as an unrelenting bloodbath, then when the murderousness is complete—when all repression has been lifted and what was buried has become the surface—might not something new come to light in the turned-up earth? But in an unexampled epoch, the author can show us only things that have already been well exampled: Hell is other people, frailty thy name is woman, and a man must keep his pistol clean and shoot straight to protect his own.
Finally, there's just not much here. The labored style labors over precious little substance. The Road is being sold as a novel but it is scarcely a novella, eked out to book length by means of small pages, large type, and lots of white space. Coming quickly to the book's end, the reader feels inclined to pose to the author this grumpy question: You destroyed civilization, and this is all you have to show for it? Readers with a taste for post-catastrophe fantasies can do better, whether their preference in catastrophes is toxicological or nuclear. In the extinction-by-virus category, a classic is still Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. In the nuclear-blast category, there is the superb Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, in which the author invents a whole new language for the inheritors of the obliterated world to tell their story in. These books show something of the human spirit in duress and the curious shapes it may take when everything familiar has been wiped away, and they rise to the artistic challenge of imagining the unimaginable. McCarthy's book merely reveals that much of human life remains to him opaque and that he won't be budged toward a new insight even by a nuclear bomb. The Road is McCarthy at his most pedestrian.
Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's
Betrayal of American Nuns
by Kenneth Briggs
Doubleday, 258 pages, $24.95
In 1960 there were close to 200,000 Catholic sisters in this country, and now there about 60,000—average age sixty-eight. There are many more nuns over ninety than under thirty. According to Briggs, the reason for this decline is that the Church “double crossed” wonderfully creative women who were determined to implement the revolution mandated by the Second Vatican Council by divesting themselves of the spiritual traditions their orders were founded to serve. Contra the subtitle, there is no “uncovering” of anything unknown. The story line of the book is lifted from a hundred books written by presumably liberated nuns and ex-nuns. Popular and scholarly accounts that offer alternative accounts of the decline are blithely ignored. Nor is attention paid the old and new orders marked by a traditional understanding of the consecrated life and attracting new vocations. Double Crossed is ideological tendentiousness pushed to the point of the preposterous.
Eudora Welty: A Biography
by Suzanne Marrs
Harcourt, 652 pages, $28
With Delta Wedding and numerous short stories, Eudora Welty was established in the pantheon of “Southern Writers,” along with Walker Percy, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor. As a student, the author met Miss Welty on one of her many campus appearances and became her friend and companion until her death at age ninety-two. She has written an admiring chronicle of Eudora Welty's many travels in literary circles and of the plethora of honors she received in the decades after she gave up serious writing.