BEFORE a morgue culture determined to hang a tag on every toe, Cormac McCarthy stands defiantly alive and untagged. Born in New England, he came of literary age in the South with 1965's "The Orchard Keeper" and thus was a "Southern writer" in the eyes of the New York publishing world. Twenty years later, wandering around Texas and New Mexico, he became a "Western writer." Writers who live and work in New York are "American writers."
Some will believe McCarthy's "The Road" begs for a new label, taking place as it does in a desolate future world that knows not geographic boundaries but psychic ones. This territory is defined by cataclysm, though the nature of the cataclysm is unclear and doesn't matter; the obliteration has been sweeping enough to turn explanations and history to ash along with everything else. The human species has reverted to a barbarism so nihilistic as to exhaust the vocabulary of barbarism; cannibalism is commonplace, and the operating principle is to kill whatever can't immediately and persuasively identify its intentions. A father and small son make their way to a sea the father cannot even promise will be blue. He's begun assimilating the new amoral verities of survival even before the book starts; the boy spends the book resisting them when he can, learning them when he must -- at which point some part of him resists them still. The father has a gun with two bullets, one for each of them. The boy's mother already has used a third on herself, making clear to the father in the hours beforehand that, given the opportunity, she would have taken the boy with her.
McCarthy found a wide audience with his sixth novel, the relatively pastoral "All the Pretty Horses" in 1992. To that audience, "The Road" will seem an abrupt left turn; in fact, the new novel makes most sense to those who know 1985's "Blood Meridian," heretofore considered McCarthy's masterpiece and rightly so. If the new label waiting for McCarthy is "apocalyptic writer," the revelation of "Blood Meridian" was that apocalypse isn't waiting for the future. Set in the 1840s American West, "Blood Meridian" is as violent a great novel as our fiction has seen, or maybe I mean as great a violent novel. Comparisons have tended more to the cinematic than the literary, Sam Peckinpah being the obvious, but really next to "Blood Meridian" Peckinpah is a crybaby. A western as made by late-era Pasolini would be closer. Faulkner's "Sanctuary" and "Light in August" seem the clear literary references, particularly given how McCarthy, like so many of us, has subsumed Faulkner into his literary DNA. This isn't a matter of flattering imitation -- though it wouldn't exactly kill McCarthy to find the apostrophe key -- but rather that Faulkner was the first American apocalyptologist, his Yoknapatawpha County a landscape for 20th century calamities of the soul. The 19th century world of "Blood Meridian" has reasserted itself in the 2Xth-century "The Road," with a scope at once bigger and smaller.
When "Blood Meridian" was published, American fiction was getting a little cute, in a self-involved way. Now every uptown writer of manners who never knew there was such a thing as the end of the world has discovered it and lays claim to what Greil Marcus calls in his new book, "The Shape of Things to Come," the American voice of prophecy. Over a couple of decades, apocalyptic fiction has turned its epiphanies into cliches, and the cliches are buried in the collapse of civilization's towers on TV before Tuesday's breakfast. The apocalypse of "Blood Meridian" has grown more devastating in "The Road," but it's been distilled into a ferocity of purpose that, as any father or mother knows, parenthood inspires like nothing else.
Barely 20 pages in, we get a glimpse of how this book is going to break our hearts. Rummaging in an abandoned supermarket, the father finds a can of Coke. He pops it open for the boy, the boy drinks it. "It's really good," he declares in awe. He wants to share it with his father, but the father says no, and in that preternaturally wise way kids sometimes have, it dawns on the boy that this will be the first and last Coke he ever drinks. If a dream is a memory of the future, then this is a Proustian dream that turns time on its head: the taste of something delicious that doesn't transport the boy to a lost yesterday but a lost tomorrow. Kids don't know loss in the abstract -- so would it have been better for the boy never to have tasted the soda at all? Or is it better to have had the singular experience that never will be repeated? Every moment of "The Road" is rich with dilemmas that are as shattering as they are unspoken. Apocalypse is personal. It's in the details.
THE father and boy are never named. In the hands of most other novelists, this would have the effect of reducing them to metaphors, but McCarthy is so accomplished that the reader senses the mysterious and intuitive changes between father and son that can't be articulated, let alone dramatized. One of the few tokens of hope "The Road" offers is that although the catastrophe that scorched the earth also burned away people's names, identity is fireproof. It wouldn't be quite fair to say the novel labors under the burden of its unforgiving vision, but even if some degree of faith is attained (and it is), things just aren't going to turn out that well. Doom of varying measure looms from the outset, and the life-saving discoveries of a bunker of canned food or a grounded cargo ship have about them, from the moment they appear, the cruel whiff of false reprieves. The ashen world has irrevocably passed a point of being put right, and the best it can tender is a record of the miracle it once was, a moment of wonder and grace in which "[t]here is no prophet in the earth's long chronicle who's not honored." We're left with the "fire" that the father tells the boy they carry, the "fire" that's inside them, and we're left with the way the child inevitably becomes father to the man. We're left with two unfired bullets and the terrifying triumph they represent.
One of McCarthy's best novels, probably his most moving and perhaps his most personal, "The Road" would be the ideal coda to a body of work that now spans 10 books over 40 years. But that would mean no more McCarthys, and no one could want that. Rather, we may hope he'll find more inspiration where "The Road" came from -- it's dedicated to his son -- even as the book wrenches our nightmares into a gray light where they don't vanish but become more vivid. Maybe a new territory awaits McCarthy beyond the South, beyond the West, beyond the world's end, or maybe it's the same territory and always has been, both lyric and savage, both desperate and transcendent, although transcendence is singed around the edges. The morgue culture cares for its tags, and can care on its own time. For the rest of us, tag McCarthy one of the four or five great American novelists of his generation, and let it go at that.
Steve Erickson is the author of seven novels, most recently "Our Ecstatic Days." He writes about film for Los Angeles magazine and is the editor of the literary journal Black Clock, published by the California Institute of the Arts, where he teaches.