Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Road (Through the Smokies) by Cormac McCarthy

Dear Cormac,

Don't you hate reading the critics? Right or wrong they overstate to the point of nausea. So here am I writing a critique. "I'm sorry," as Papa said over and over and over again in your book.

I rather liked what this guy said. “The Road is the logical culmination of everything [McCarthy]’s written. It is also, paradoxically, his most humane and compassionate book . . . The question that the novel implicitly poses–how much can you subtract from human existence before it ceases to be human?–takes on heartbreaking force . . . One measure of a good writer is the ability to surprise. Terse, unsentimental, bleak–McCarthy’s readers have been down that road before. But who would ever have thought you’d call him touching?” –Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

"Down that road before". . . his pun "intended". But what a metaphor it is. I don't think any of us tire of the journey of life, so how can we tire of the symbol. I was very taken with this story, for I am a perpetual student of life and have actually surveyed the subject of The Good, the Summum Bonum of life, and this book tackles it so "head on" that I could hardly fail to love it.

My cousin Geoff says he knows you, that he used to drink with you in a bar somewhere in the Southwest, maybe in Mesilla near where routes 180 and 85 separate but before route 70 joins 180 going west. You know that little place? That was long ago, for he has not been to the Southwest for a long time. He liked you though. Maybe I have seen you. Do you ever come back and visit Knoxville, disguised to avoid Knox News reporters, disguised as a University of Tennessee professor who has tired of wearing orange. I think Knoxville is a good place to live and work and write blogs. You are welcome to come back any time.

The roads of Knoxville have always been an important part of the place. I remember talking with this woman who lived in Cosby. Her daddy was a moonshiner. He carried his shining goods back and forth along "Thunder Road" to Knoxville and beyond. She may or may not have followed her father's liquid tradition, but she could play a lick on a dulcimer. She knew the roads of the Smokies well. I've spent some time with a few of the Old Timers too. Old Timers are the folks who had actually lived on the land that is now the Smoky Mountains National Park. And Old Timers knew how to survive, and knew how to trail through those mountains with no more than a deer path to guide them.

The people of the Smokies were a unique breed of folks. They cleared a very rough land. And a successful year barely got them through until Spring. The wild vegetation would spring up so quickly that it reclaimed the south 20 'bout as fast as the settlers claimed the north 20. Yet they remained hopeful and found unique expressions in singing, and story telling, and such. You can still join with a group that does shape note singing--I saw the next sing advertised in this week's papers. I suppose they need new members to survive these days so they put it in the papers. Next thing you know they'll be on YouTube.

Passing on things to our children is one of the things The Road talks about isn't. It is one of the goods we have to offer our loved offspring. The Smoky Mountains were always good for a story. One of the great story tellers was Wiley Oakley. He called himself the roaming man of the Smokies. He could have, I suspect, entertained Papa and the boy had they come across him while walking through those mountains.
This was Wiley.

I remember one mountain oldster showing me the trees that now stand on the home site of his birth. His pathos reminds me of the losses that your characters faced. It was a different set of circumstances, less dire of course. Yet the Old Timers of the Smoky Mountains felt a great loss when they lost the land where they were birthed. And many never strayed too far from where they had been born . . . even now. Close enough, they've stayed, to visit the graves at plots now only reachable by vehicles with special permissions and assists. Graves slowly being taken by the soft reaches of the biospheric multiplicity that is the Smokies. At least that was not lost.

Have you, (I'll bet you have) ever sought out morels? Yes? But they are hard to find even in the best of times. Hidden, camouflaged in the greys and ripples of the earth. They have always been a precious find like the one you described in The Road, and one that was always a great secret. It was never polite to ask where an Old Timer found their morels. That kind of prying just wasn't done.

The Old Timers of the Smoky Mountains led a gray and sparse existence, but one of hope, nonetheless. This, you captured and were, perhaps, inspired by as you wrote of the man and boy crossing this terrain. What route, I'm wondering were they traveling? I picture them plodding through the heart of the Smokies from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, crossing over near Newfound Gap. But the story doesn't really hold up under this theory. Mentions of Rock City make me believe the duo passed along the edge of the mountains on Route 129. Of course, Rock City signs are plentiful and from quite a distance, even as far as Bristol. None on Route 441 through the mountains, through the National Park.

What was in your mind?

Not place so much as theme, I bet. What makes 'good' in a human soul? What fires 'hope'? Salvation? What does that mean when we are stripped done to two people plus 'love'? You have drawn a good landscape for us to enter and think about those things.

You spent part of your life near Knoxville. I spent part of my early life near Pittsburgh. I read that the movie version of your book was set in the Pennsylvania environs. Yes, there is a bleak cast upon the face of Western P.A. (When they say PA, they say the P separately from the A). Coal and steel fired through that area and burned it up. Pittsburgh took a big hit. Fortunately, for hope, the city has rebounded and is doing better these days. Perhaps that will happen to your post apocalyptic world. Will morel mushrooms survive, thrive, and feed the sparse population of earth? Or is that even necessary for hope to live and fire the souls of even the last earthy citizens?

The Old Timers of the Smokies hoped and lived on little. They never wasted bread or bullets or friends or love or even many words, except for Wiley Oakley. But the ones I've met personally, Wiley's sister, Lucy (I think it was), Glen Caldwell, one of the park rangers, and others--they met life with a kind of fire that could survive on little and they brought to that life a great respect for land and people, continuance and love. That, there, is the Road, post apocalypse or not.



cadh 8 said...

Loved this post. I will put "The Road" next on my list after I finish the Eyre affair, which I am highly enjoying. Such an obvious, yet profound metaphor if done right. I have not read any Cormac yet, and have wanted to, so this will be good.

And it was run remembering those days when I was still in high school when you were travelling out to the smokies and doign research for Omniview. I will never forget the spinner at one festival we went to talking about spining dog hair into yarn. How she said it never quite loses that smell... funny.

cadh 8 said...

Started "The Road" this morning. Really am enjoying it so far!! This is my kind of book, like "Life of Pi" and "Old Man and the Sea", it is very one man against the world, only he has his son in this one, which is more than Pi had in Richard Parker. Only, this one is sure to be a tragedy, so I fear what may be ahead on the road.

brd said...

Of course, symbolically we all always know the end of our roads, so in that, there is no tragedy only reality.

Survival is not the summum bonum.

cadh 8 said...

I have finished "The Road" now, and you are right about survival. I thought that one of the most interesting themes in the book was this balance between wanting to survive and sort of hoping that it doesn't work out. That is, that something happens to end the suffereing. I think of the passage where they meet the old man. When they leave him the man says "I bet you aren't even going to wish us luck" and the old man says "I don't even know what that would mean". I got this feeling that in some ways he felt that "luck" might mean that a meteor would fall out of the sky and land on the man and boy both killing them instantly. Ongoing survival did not seem that lucky.
THe other interesting thread to me was that we never were given names for the main characters...they were man and boy. Then when they meet the old man the father asks him his name. The old man answers "Eli". But the father pushes the point, wanting a last name and wanting to know if this was his true name. That was interesting to me.
I expected a fully tragic ending. But I was surprised by hope in the end. I had wanted there to be a path out of the horror...for the Road not to end in death but life. And I think it did. Not that the problems were solved, and as the man said, everybody dies. So you are right, this is reality, not tragedy. But the idea that the fire can still go on. That is important. And that goodness will return to the world. We must believe that and remember to be that goodness.

brd said...

Yes, I agree that the lack of specific names was a very interesting thing. It took me a while to notice it, but when I did, I thought it quite important. McCarthy has stripped his characters and world down to the very lowest common denominator, taking even their names from them. This is quite a decision for an author, because names are sometimes considered to be part of our humanness.

I agree with you that it is significant that the ending leaves us with love, hope, and goodness. The dark critics probably don't like that, but I do. I also like that we are left with a very spiritual turn. He doesn't present the four spiritual laws and play Just as I Am, but the message is impressively open to the relation between God and good.

cadh 8 said...

Yes...I left this book wishing I was in high school and could be assigned papers on interpretation, as I know I won't do research and writing on my own. But I would like to explore more about what he is saying about God and good. It is very interesting. And the writing of the book really "puts you there" wondering and struggling with the problems the characters face. I was longing for them to see something alive, something growing. AS the boy seemed to. He gravitated toward the living they met on the road.