Cormac McCarthy's The Road

First, this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, one of my very favorite novels:

All the weeds were frozen up in little ice pipettes, dry husks of seedpods, burdock hulls, all sheathed in glass and vances and shells of ice that webbed old leaves and held in frozen colloid specks of grit or soot or blacking. Wonky sheets of ice spanned the ditches and the ironcolored trees along the wintry desolate and bitter littoral were seized with gray hoarfrost. Suttree crossed the brittle fields to the road and went up Front Street.   … Suttree’s underjaw chattered till he had thought for his teethfillings. He crossed the street and crossing the store porch read the tin thermometer on the wall at zero or near it.

A few pages later, Suttree runs into young Gene Harrogate:

Well come on let’s go. You’ll freeze down here.

I done already am. Shit.

Harrogate rose and spat and heisted up his shoulders in a shuddering gesture of despair and crossed the frozen ground toward the stairs. You could see the shape of his shoulderblades through the army jacket he wore. They climbed to the street above, hands in pockets.

Have you eaten anything?

Harrogate shook his head. Shit no. I’m a mere shadder.

Well, let’s see about getting some groceries in your skinny gut.

You got any money?

Not yet.

Shit, said Harrogate.

They hiked up the cold and desolate street. A bitter wind had risen and little balls of soot hobbled along the walks. Old papers rose and rattled in an alleyway and a paper cup went scuttling. These lone figures going through the naked streets swore at the cold and something like the sun struggled at ten oclock sleazy and heatless beyond the frozen pestilential miasma that cloaked the town.

Still later:

Suttree wiped his chin and looked down at the sharp and strangely wizened childsface rapt with larceny. Gene?

Yeah?

You waste me.

Yeah. Well.

In the street they stood facing downwind, picking their teeth.

What are you going to do?

I don’t know. Freeze.

Don’t you know anybody over the hill you could sort of visit?

I don’t know. I could go up to Rufus’s maybe.

Well get somewhere. I’m going over to see how the old man is. We’ll figure something out.

I believe it’s the end of the world.

What?

Harrogate was looking at the pavement. He said it again.

Look at me, Suttree said.

He looked up. Sad pinched face, streaked with grime.

Are you serious?

Well what do you think about it?

Suttree laughed.

It ain’t funny, said Harrogate.

You’re funny, you squirrelly son of a bitch. Do you think the world will end just because you’re cold?

It ain’t just me. It’s cold all over.

The fact this powerful passage – which I’ve never forgotten since first reading the novel in 2002 – has lost some of its harshness is a testament to the extraordinary level of harshness achieved in McCarthy’s new novel, The Road. What Harrogate believed has actually come to be true. McCarthy again gives us two lone figures walking through a ruinous existence. In Suttree, it is the characters who are in ruins. In The Road, it is the world.

In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.

Never before have I been this devastated by a book. I felt gutted as I read it. If you desire art that affects you physically, apocalyptic visions described with crushing beauty and masterful economy, I know of no other book to point you to.