An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
Over this Christmas season my brother-in-law let me borrow a copy of a book he heartily recommended entitled "The Road" written by Cormac McCarthy. All I knew about it was that it was in the "post-apocalyptic" genre and I'd been warned it was "very dark." For all I knew this was going to be a very gruesome "Mad Max." But by the time I started reading and had adjusted to McCarthy's style, I was hooked and had the 280 or so pages read in a day and a half. At first I was unsure what to think, but after a few days of thought...haunted by it...I've come to the conclusion that this book is absolutely fantastic.
We are never told what caused the end of the world as we know it, but as McCarthy describes it, it would appear to me that this is a nuclear winter. Some no doubt will wish to see this as some vision of the future after man-made climate change takes full-effect, but McCarthy doesn't seen to care much about WHAT caused the situation, on the contrary his novel is fundamentally about being truly human amidst absolutely inhuman conditions and also it is a beautiful love story. A love story between a father and his son.
I will not give too much of the plot away, but I will tell you how this book moves me. I saw in "The Road" an analogy of our lives today...right now.
For most of us, this life is so easy, so rich and comfortable that it is often difficult to see the hell that surrounds us...and is in us. Some people suffer it to varying degrees and surely we all die...but some others sadly (or perhaps more blessedly?) have a truer vision of the horrors of which we humans are capable. Some people suffer through a reality that is not unlike "The Road" where there seems to be NO hope at all and people visit all manner of hell upon one another.
But if it is sometimes hard to see the "post-apocalyptic" state we do live in already, it is even harder to see that state manifested in our own hearts. "The Road" exists invisibly amongst us everyday. In the "The Road" the sun has been blotted out and ash is continually falling, thus all plant life has died and by the time the story-line of the book takes place (years after the beginning of the end), there remains no life other than human...and thus nothing to eat, except old and difficult to find canned goods, and each other. Cannibalism has frighteningly become to some the only way to survive and the horrors of it are not hidden in the book. Yet, the man and the boy (neither of whom are ever named) refuse to let go of their humanity and they see themselves as "the good guys" and those who are "carrying the fire" of humanity. And with all this cannibalism I was reminded of this from St. John Chrysostom:
Let the mouth too fast from disgraceful speeches and railing. For what doth it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eateth the flesh of his brother, and biteth the body of his neighbor.
Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, “If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Gal. v. 15. Thou hast not fixed thy teeth in the flesh, but thou hast fixed the slander in the soul, and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion; thou hast harmed, in a thousand ways, thyself and him, and many others, for in slandering a neighbor thou hast made him who listens to the slander worse…
One need not think too hard to see that our sins are often like cannibalism, so much of the base of our sinfulness is manifested in objectifying others and devouring them for our own benefit. Surely subtle in most cases, but not always. So I kept asking myself about the cannibalism in my own life and wondering how well I am protecting those I claim to love from it in the same way that the man in "The Road" struggles to protect his boy from the more overt cannibals.
"The Road" we all walk is right here in front of us. The dangers real. We struggle to protect ourselves and we struggle to protect those we love. But we must recognize that many of the dangers we face on the road are created from our own hearts and souls. It is astonishingly perilous and these notions of "being the good guys" and "carrying the fire" become perhaps more difficult to reconcile in my analogy, but I see a place for them. The book would seem to have no hope, but if you read closely I think you will see that the hope is found in the love between the boy and the man. Indeed their love sustains them and McCarthy describes them as "each the others world entire."
In the book, the man's wife (and of course the boy's mother) - who we only read about in flashbacks - decides that traveling "The Road" is too much for her to bear. She despairs completely and will not carrying on the struggle. She surrenders. I found her final conversation with the man to be heart rending and almost too difficult to read. For you see, there is no axe wielding warrior hero in this book who would come and rescue her from the jaws of death...the victory on "The Road" is won more subtly.
When we surrender and refuse to tread "The Road" that is real, we surrender to all the passions of cannibalism. We do not escape these passions, not even through death. Death is the wages of these passions and despair the surest way of yielding fully to them. There is always hope and we must learn to see that. Love. I was saddened that the man could not verbalize this hope more clearly...but it is sometimes hard to do so, especially while we ourselves are in the midst of tremendous struggle. And indeed sometimes despair is so deep, so beyond reach... it would seem no mercy can soothe it.
Anyway, I could go on and on about this analogy and the power of this book - there is much more to be found in it. I think what most struck me was the fact that this story challenged me. It challenged me because I see the reality of "The Road" in my life. I am aware of at least SOME of the passions that lead me to devour my wife, my children, my loved ones and my friends and I am encouraged to fight to protect them from the cannibals in my heart. Perhaps that sounds cheesy, but the end of the book had me weeping from the beauty of the love between that unnamed man and boy. Weeping also for my failure to recognize and engage my job properly amidst this life; "The Road" we are all on.
In an interview McCarthy said simply that he hoped his book would help people appreciate their lives and the lives of those around us. It surely does that, but I would add that I hope it will also encourage readers to continue the struggle to be fully human no matter how bad and hopeless things appear. To love and to live in the fullness of that Love no matter what. Which is Christ. Therein is the clearing skies lacking in the book.
ADDENDUM: A film by the same title was released last month. I've not seen it, but it has received positive reviews and I'm told it is very faithful to the book. McCarthy is an excellent writer and I worry that much of what so moved me was his prose, but we shall see. Some scenes might be unbearable and I hate to cry like a baby in a theater, so perhaps it would be best to wait for Netflix? A writer at Hollywood Jesus offers a very good review of the film in which she sees some of the same themes I mentioned.
I agree, terrific book. He was interviewed recently in the WSJ. You can read it by going here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704576204574529703577274572.html
His Border Trilogy is also good and I am still thinking about "No Country for Old Men" and am told I need to see the movie by friends, though I hate to have my mental image of the characters polluted by the movie. Anyway, good book and appreciate your thoughts.