A detour at the end of 'The Road'

Published April 23, 2007

Since Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize last week for The Road, just about every news story has called the novel bleak. Runnerup adjectives include savage, brutal and postapocalyptic.

Accurate, every one. Set in a world where some unexplained disaster has wiped out civilization, the novel is peopled by isolated survivors who remain alive only through the most extreme measures: looting, murder, even cannibalism.

Yet The Road is the most hopeful book McCarthy has ever written. Its nameless main characters, a father and son called the man and the boy, struggle against staggering odds not only to stay together but to remain moral beings. Ragged, starving, terrified, harried at every turn and doomed from the first page, they are yet profoundly heroic.

That may be one reason The Road won the Pulitzer. Although the judges don't shy from fiction that addresses serious issues, they have tended over the years to reward uplift over, well, bleakness. No doubt that uplift also helped make The Road Oprah Winfrey's latest book club pick.

Uplift is not necessarily what McCarthy's longtime, often rabidly devoted fans expect of him. My first experience of his writing, almost 20 years ago, was having the top of my head blown off by his greatest, most original work, Blood Meridian.

Talk about bleak.

Set in a blasted inversion of the mythic American West, Blood Meridian follows the nightmare descent of a young man called the kid McCarthy can be downright parsimonious with proper names who ends up in the 1840s in the badlands along the U.S.-Mexico border.

There he falls in with ferocious bounty hunters whose prey is human: They return from the hunt laden with the scalps of Indians, large and small.

Their leader is among the most unforgettable, appalling figures in American literature, a brilliant, hairless, pale giant called Judge Holden. The Judge could eat mad Captain Ahab for breakfast, ivory leg and all. He is, at the very least, Satan.

Blood Meridian guts all manner of sacred cows, among them the still-enduring American myth that violence can be ennobling, can make a man a man. Violence occurs on virtually every page, and victims and violators alike are laid waste by it. There are no heroes.

Yet Blood Meridian is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. It's the apotheosis of McCarthy's style, a flood of exquisite language that booms with echoes of Faulkner, Melville, Shakespeare and the King James Bible, yet is always McCarthy's own voice, sweeping all before it.

Blood Meridian was McCarthy's fifth novel. His first four, set in the South, where he spent much of his youth, are accomplished books but reveal him trying to write his way free of the enormous influence of Faulkner. In Blood Meridian, he found both his voice and his most resonant setting, the West.

Having written it, he seemed ready to crawl back out over the lip of hell. His next books were the Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Set in the West in the 20th century, they too are stained with bloodshed but gentler in tone, elegies to a flawed but valuable way of life that has all but vanished.

McCarthy's style in the border books is just as lyrical and complex, but the characters, unlike those in Blood Meridian, have friendships, family loyalties, even romances. Readers found them more accessible: More than a million copies of All the Pretty Horses are in print, and it won the 1992 National Book Award. (There is also a 2000 film version starring a way-too-old-for-the-part Matt Damon.)

McCarthy's ninth novel, No Country for Old Men, retains the Western setting but is written in a much pared-down style. It boasts a monstrous bad man, but the dominant voice is that of the smart sheriff trying to outwit him. Shorthand for the sheriff's earthy, solid character: In the movie version, made by Joel and Ethan Coen and due out next year, he's played by Tommy Lee Jones.

And now there's The Road. Its style is a stark contrast with that of McCarthy's first eight books: taut, stark, vivid but precise. Its plot, too, is a departure for McCarthy, who has always adored the digression on the tangential topic, the sidebar lesson on warfare or wolves.

The Road plunges forward relentlessly, never turning its lidless eye from the man and the boy. I read it straight through, feeling that if I put the book down they might vanish into the blowing ashes of immolated cities that cover their world.

It's brilliant, and it was no surprise that it won a Pulitzer.

I do have to admit that the first time a headline about it being Oprah's book club pick popped up on my computer screen, I thought it must be from the Onion.

At that point, I had not read The Road, just a few bleakness-intensive reviews, and could only think of Blood Meridian. Not that Oprah hasn't led her flock to serious literature in the past, but I wondered about the choice.

Now that I've read it, I don't. But I am still a little leery about McCarthy consenting to be interviewed for Oprah's show.

I love hearing authors talk about their work; interviewing them is one of the most interesting parts of my job. But McCarthy's long-zipped lip is part of his legend.

He doesn't do book tours or speaking engagements, doesn't teach, maintains a very private life. In the course of a four-decade career, McCarthy, 73, has sat for only two interviews, one in 1992 for the New York Times Magazine and one in 2005 for Vanity Fair (in which the reporter opined it was "impossible to imagine him chatting with Oprah"). In both, he comes off as brilliant and gracious, but guarded. And he talks almost not at all about writing.

According to reports, he won't be interviewed in front of a studio audience but at the Santa Fe Institute, a scientific think tank where he is a fellow.

I'll be watching when the interview airs, of course. But in The Road, McCarthy shows us the extremes of savagery and of love, the worst and best that humanity can be. When someone can work that kind of magic on the page, I'm not sure I want to know how he does it.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com