On the Road
When I was ten I thought there was going to be a nuclear war. I was quite looking forward to it. That it really was going to happen was a commonplace at the time: there were pop songs about nuclear war, TV comedy sketches about nuclear war. No-one really expressed any doubt about it. The part I was looking forward to most was not the attack itself, obviously – no, it was the aftermath. Everybody knew that during the blast all you had to do was hide underground somewhere. Then afterwards I and my junior school classmates would wander out completely unscathed into a world just as it had been before, only now without any teachers or other adults to spoil things for us. With another part of my brain, so to speak, I would worry that everyone I knew was going to die one night just like that but, being the kind of child I was, I didn’t let that detain me too much.
I would tell people all this by way of a light-hearted anecdote from my late teens, when the Cold War was coming to an end, all the way up to my mid-thirties. Then I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Post-apocalyptic novels had become rather a preoccupation of mine during those years, but The Road was the starkest thing I had ever read. Because nothing would grow in the nuclear winter it depicted, there was no food: all the horrors that were to come followed on from this premise, starting with the forest full of dead trees where a Man and a Boy (their names never to be revealed) slept rough in the opening scene, and swiftly becoming more intense. They were not safe if they could be seen from the road, it said in the opening pages, and had to be ready to make a run at any minute – though from whom, when the landscape was ‘barren, silent, godless’? A rare glimpse of some other human beings gave the answer. The band of survivors they espied had some wagons which, it was mentioned almost in passing, were pushed along by slaves they had taken. Given how the Man and the Boy scrabbled round for food it seemed only logical, moreover, when it transpired that since the catastrophe people had resorted to cannibalism. In case the Boy
were hunted down the Man showed him how to fire a gun, but it was in order to shoot not his pursuers, but himself.
Mulling over The Road I would admonish myself, even though I’d been a child, for willing on a nuclear holocaust with quite such brio. It wasn’t as though I had not thought on the reality of nuclear war as an adult – on the contrary – but reading The Road had an unusually sobering effect. A few years earlier I’d read Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. It had been a fascinating book, but for all its arguments it had never made me believe that the war of every man against every man actually could take place. Yet now here it was, right in front of me. If the survivors wanted to take slaves, and the government had been wiped out with the rest of society, then what was to stop them? If no food would grow, what would anyone eat except human flesh? The Man and the Boy almost starved to death trying to maintain the last of their integrity and not descend into cannibalism, but even they could not afford to be altruistic: when the Boy suggested they stop and help another straggler, he got short shrift. ‘He’s going to die. If we share what we have, we’ll die too.’ There was nothing to say back. This came after they had watched the fellow simply sit down where he was and give up. They had ended up just walking past him. It was bleak but, again, it was impossible to argue with. Some post-nuclear novels had asked for a suspension of disbelief at castes of mutants or even at psychic powers brought on by radiation. The Road was so credible precisely because it asked me to believe so little that, deep down, I didn’t already know to be true.
And in writing it McCarthy had not made things easy for himself. The Road began in medias res but in truth he had given himself barely any res to write about: no convenient pockets of civilisation where a story might play out, precious few characters, little human interaction. Yet it was so compelling that while I was reading it I never even thought about this. Early on came the Man’s first flashback to his former life – a memory of taking firewood across a lake with his uncle, very simple but beautifully rendered – then, when the focus returned to the desolate present, all I could do was reflect on how the world must have gone from the one state to the other, and wonder
if there would be another flashback to the blasts that had set it all in train. It would be less than fifty pages until I found out but, with the uncertainty only building in the meantime and the blasts’ consequences unfolding one after another, I was caught up by a mix of anticipation and dread. What gave still more impetus to the book was hunger. The Man and the Boy’s need to eat was too primal and too serious to let my attention stray. There would be moments that seemed to offer a little relief, and the odd episode of human contact, but underneath it all was always the possibility that the one thing that was sustaining them might give out. With a whole novel to fashion out of such sparse subject matter, and employing such laconic prose, McCarthy might have allowed himself a page of commentary or exposition here and there – in fact, though, he seemed to do the opposite. At one point the Man and the Boy came across a smashed-up vending machine with no-one around for miles. All the cans had been taken from it, all the money had been left. McCarthy did not go on to expound upon disorder erupting, food supplies breaking down, society itself collapsing, but he did not need to, because he had already evoked it all in that one image. At the opening of the book the Man had only two bullets in his gun, and at first reading this seemed like a rather obvious device: in the straits he was in, why didn’t he arm himself to the teeth? McCarthy gave not a word in explanation. Only while ruminating on it afterwards did I realise that, some time before the book began, the Man must have got all the ammunition he could amass, but since then he had been forced to use it up defending himself and his son. The point was not how few bullets he had, but how few he had left. In that it evoked whole trains of thought like this whilst needing to state so little, The Road was a poetic novel.
And not in that sense only. McCarthy’s book was harrowing, terrifying – and full of beautiful imagery. A snowflake fell ‘like the last host of Christendom’. Nights were ‘dark to hurt your ears with listening’. The Earth and the sun circled round now ‘like a grieving mother with a lamp’. It could be funny too even amidst the bleakness: when they scouted out a building for danger, the Man and the Boy looked ‘like sceptical housebuyers’.
Reconnoitring one’s surroundings like this was one of the actions which
I found myself noting down mentally – perhaps, in spite of everything, I couldn’t resist imagining surviving a nuclear war. If it ever did come to it, though, would I really fare any better for having read The Road? True, it had taught me the first thing to do when a nuclear bomb goes off (run a bathful of water, if you’re interested). But the Man’s survival skills also included trickier ones like repairing a supermarket trolley wheel, and, since I was not obsessive enough or time-rich enough to follow the methods McCarthy described, reading The Road did not inspire me to join the ranks of doomsday survivalists (though I can respect them enough not to join in the guffawing when people start discussing episodes of Preppers UK). The effect it did have, perhaps surprisingly for such a pessimistic novel, was to bring about a richer appreciation of everything around me. I still delectate over every meal, even the most downmarket ones. Not long after I finished reading it, I remember watching from a bus as the commuters poured out of Cannon Street station and feeling gratitude and – at the risk of sounding hippyish – something like love towards them all, just for still being alive. But even in that moment I had to wonder what I might witness from the same individuals if no food had been delivered to London for a fortnight.
As I write this I can only hope we’re not any nearer to finding out, what with two cartoon character presidents threatening a nuclear exchange in the Pacific. Usually I’m delighted if something I’ve written acquires a bit of topical interest – in this case, perhaps a little less so. Nothing I say here can possibly change the situation, but surely someone somewhere can speak a few words of sanity into the right ear, and then everybody’s lives will just carry on the way they always have. Surely?