I'm probably reading far too much into this book, but it seems to invite such scrutiny. Its emotional impact is blunt, yet strangely reassuring. At its heart, this is a story of a man's love for his son, but McCarthy has chosen the most adversarial setting possible.
Mixed in through the text are odd words and turns of phrase, some of which seem random or invented. The one that stands out most, however, is "salitter."
I knew I'd heard it before, but I couldn't place it. Turns out, it was used by Jakob Böhme in his 1612 book Aurora to describe the "substance of God."
Near the end of the book, the man has this epiphany:
He got up and walked out to the road. The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. p. 260
Taken as a nonsense word, the passage still has a visceral impact, but it becomes something more when it's understood. There are several other religious references here, but among them is one less obvious:
No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment. He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt. Ibid
The book is rife with references to mud and clay, but here they appear to add up to something subtle but important.
Talmudic tradition mentions beings known as golems, animate but soulless creatures created when wise rabbis infuse clay or mud with the breath of God. In Hebrew, the term literally means "unshaped form (or mass)." In fact, Sanhedrin 38b refers to Adam as being such a creature for the first 12 hours of his life. In this context, "golem" is interpreted to mean, "body without a soul."
Traditionally, the golem is brought to life by inscribing one of the names of God on a piece of paper and inserting it into the mouth. Removing the paper kills it.
The next major reference is near the beginning, in which McCarthy offers the only description of the cataclysm that has rendered the world largely lifeless:
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. p. 52
Notice the distinct mention of the time. This could be a numerological reference. If it is, there are several interpretations.
The first would be Genesis (Book 1) 17, in which God promises Abraham a son. It is here that the entire Judeo-Christian mythology begins, and its protagonist is the forefather of three major religions.
If this is the case, then the story of the man and his son stands as an inversion of the binding of Isaac. Where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son in the faith that God would be able to resurrect him (Hebrews 11:17-19), the man refuses to let his son succumb to the seemingly inevitable. In fact, the boy appears to be the man's only link to God:
He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.
Unlike Abraham, he's never asked to sacrifice his son, however. In fact, the Man only speaks to God to curse him:
Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck with which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God. p.12
If anything, the man takes care of the boy in defiance of fate (or God's will). The boy is his last link to any kind of future.
Of course, McCarthy may not mean to imply this interpretation. It may also be a metaphorical red herring.
Another possibility is Revelations 1:17:
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.
I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
This seems less likely, and given the nature of the book, it would be a bit heavy-handed.
A third, more obscure but possibly more apt possibility is from 1 Kings 17:
And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.
And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land.
Why? Because it involves Elijah, a version of whom the man and his son encounter on the side of the road. In the book, he's named Ely, but the parallels are hard to miss.
In Jewish folklore, it was common for Elijah to wander the countryside as a beggar in order to test the kindness and hospitality of people toward strangers. In The Road, he is the one person to whom the man and boy offer help.
The name Elijah can also be translated as "Angel of the Covenant." However, the version we meet here has no use for God, claiming, "there is no God and we are his prophets." He is evasive, even on the subject of his identity.
The man believes that his son is some manifestation of God's will to some extent (though not divine by nature), and when he mentions this to Ely, the wanderer's response is,
I'm past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You'll see. It's better to be alone. (…) to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it's not true. Things will be better when everyone's gone. (…) When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. p. 170-171
This could be Elijah, waiting for the end of all things. It could be Ahasver, who according to medieval folklore, mocked Jesus and was forced to wander the earth until its end. However, like the possible reference to Revelations, this seems a bit too heavy-handed in an otherwise very subtle text.
There's been a great deal of debate as to the actual disaster which brings about the end of the world. Some say nuclear war, some see a natural disaster, such as a meteor impact. McCarthy isn't saying. The man's sickness is not explicity described. His symptoms could easily be caused by malnutrition, hypothermia and exhaustion, all of which are understandable given the circumstances. It isn't necessarily the result of radiation exposure.
Insects seem not to have survived, nor have rats or vegetation of any kind. In fact, only human beings are seen. A dog is heard but not seen. Most wood and mortar structures appear to be at least somewhat intact. That's about all we know.
There are hints that the event may have been caused by men:
"He'd come to see a message in each such late history, a message and a warning, and so this tableau of the slain and devoured did prove to be." p. 91
Ely also claims to have some knowledge of it, but his utterances are unreliable at best, and possibly dishonest:
How do you live?
I just keep going. I knew this was coming.
You knew it was coming?
Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.
Did you try to get ready for it?
No. What would you do?
I don't know.
People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.
These references are vague, though, and could mean any number of things. The point isn't what caused the end; it is simply a setting, perhaps a more feasible description of Purgatory.
I'll close with a note on McCarthy's prose style. I know he doesn't tend to spend much time in literary circles, so this is most likely coincidence, but I can't help but be reminded of the poetry of W.S. Merwin. Take this sentence:
Always so deliberate, hardly surprised by the most outlandish events. A creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end. p. 59
Now compare it in inflection and tone to a passage from Merwin's poem, "For a Coming Extinction."
I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day
Much of Merwin's middle period spoke to a certain weary brand of tentative desire for transcendence. McCarthy's prose style in The Road reads like similar blank verse. It's broken into widely-spaced paragraphs rife with concrete imagery, and though it reads like prose, each paragraph lays on the page like a small, self-contained poem.
Take one paragraph of McCarthy's and decompress it:
Drip of water
A fading light
Old dreams encroached upon the waking world
The dripping was in the cave. The light
was a candle which the boy bore in a ringstick
of beaten copper. The wax
spattered on the stones
Tracks of unknown creatures in the mortified loess. p. 280
Now compare it to "For the Anniversary of My Death:"
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
I don't bring these parallels up to claim that McCarthy's ripping Merwin. I do so to point out how poetic his writing is. I don't need to lavish this book with praise; that's already been done, and it is all deserved. I haven't had a book affect me this deeply since Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (which I waited far too long to read).
In short, read it if you haven't already. It's rare that a book this good gets the popularity it deserves within its first cycle of publishing.
A quick note on citations: the page numbers are taken from the Vintage International trade paperback printing, ISBN 978-0-307-38789-9. There are currently four or five editions of this book in print, so the page numberings will likely be different from one printing to the next.