March 2008 - Vol. 17

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy
Vintage International (Random House)
287 pages

Note: This novel can be disturbing for some readers. It portrays a hopeless world of darkness and violence. Some scenes are graphic. Parents should familiarize themselves with the book before recommending it to younger readers.

They Still Haven't Found What 
They Are Looking For 

– Carrying the Flame in the Modern World

By Jon Wilson

I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s latest book for two reasons: I had agreed to read and discuss it with some co-workers, and I thought it might be a good candidate for a book review in Living Bulwark. By the time I was done, I had decided that our discussion would be brief, and that I would have to look elsewhere for this month’s review. The novel, a portrait of a post-apocalyptic United States, is dark, grim, and ultimately empty. Yet in discussing the novel, I came to see that McCarthy’s work is valuable for the insight it provides into a worldview which I do not share or understand. For a Christian in the modern world, this type of reading, though difficult, can be both fruitful and rewarding.

Since its publication in 2006, The Road has won critical acclaim for McCarthy, including the Pulitzer Prize and Oprah’s Book of the Month. In the story, a father and son struggle through a barren wasteland, following a road, seeking the coast, though they really have no hope of finding anything there to help them. The country has been destroyed by unnamed, perhaps unknown, enemies (though, not surprisingly, one picks up hints that it has something to do with religious radicals). The land is sparsely populated by fierce, unpredictable survivors, some of them willing to cannibalize fellow wanderers to stay alive. The book seems almost to have no beginning, and to have no end, like the road itself.

In the midst of their wanderings, the father and son attempt to cope with the hopelessness of their situation. Suicide is an ever-present option; their gun is their most protected possession.  Yet they are carried forward by their very tangible love for one another, and also by an abstract concept, the idea that they are “carrying the fire.” They never explain what they mean by this, but it becomes clear that the idea of the fire is a kind of mental repository for things like humanity, love, hope, and mercy. The boy is preoccupied with finding “the good guys,” people who, like him, carry the fire in this wasted, decaying civilization. They are very hard to find.

So what is it about this book that caught Oprah’s eye? Why are people reading it? Perhaps it is because McCarthy has accurately described the landscape of the modern soul, and contemporary readers are seeing themselves in the story. As our society drifts more and more into the desert of individualism, people are longing to find the good guys, the carriers of the fire. But the book is ultimately a failure because the author himself does not know the source of the flame. 

Ours is a world full of seekers, fellow travelers on the road. If the success of McCarthy’s novel is any indication, a lot of these seekers do not really know what they are looking for. This sobering reality highlights the need for the good guys to seek the seekers, to share the flame, and to lead others to the End that they have not been able to find on their own.

Note: The author is grateful to Joshua Birk and Bekah Galer for their thoughtful comments about the novel.

[Jon Wilson is a coordinator of Word of Life, a member community of the Sword of the Spirit. He and his wife, Melody and their four children live in Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA.] 

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