If you’ve read more than one of my blogs, you know that I pay special attention to how a book begins. I didn’t learn to read entirely by reading. There were helpful voices along the way, such as Ezra Pound’s book An ABC of Reading, or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or my weekly poetry tutorial with Hayden Carruth back in 1975. We’d sit outside on balmy afternoons that fall, wild Asters in bloom by the bubbling brook beside his house in Johnson, Vermont, and he would show me what he noticed in my poems. He always noticed more than what I was conscious of writing. In that process of simple affirmation, he taught me to appreciate what was truly “mine” in the way I set things down. He did this in such a way that I didn’t have to force what was natural to me. I just had to open a door and get “myself” out of the way, and then see the sorts of things he had seen in the results. He found it remarkable that I was an aspiring poet who didn’t read much poetry. I tried to, I really did, but I am drawn more to narrative writing. That’s what I like to read.
Here is the beginning of a haunting narrative:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.
When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.
The author is Cormack McCarthy. The book is The Road. We enter the story in a factual statement about a man and a child sleeping for an undefined number of nights, cold, outside in the woods. Their environment is unnaturally dark and growing darker all the time. The man apparently touches the child to see if he is still alive. Each small breath is “precious.” The two people stink. The man has dreamed of them “like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost…”
In this first paragraph, there is something strange about the rhythm of the sentences. Some have a gesture of length to them, and then come some that begin with a stark noun, like the second sentence, “Nights dark beyond darkness…” Words left out, as if “saving breath” for the minimum number to get an idea out. The third sentence works the same way, saving breath. Then two longer sentences followed by the need to “catch breath,” in a manner of speaking. Back and forth it goes, moderately long sentences and “catching breath” sentences.
By the second paragraph, the writer is not just saving words, he is saving apostrophes. The man “wasnt” sure of the month. He “hadnt” kept a calendar for years. Years: the strange situation of the man and the child, in a dimming environment, has been an extended time. The geographical location of the two has become critical to their survival.
In the third paragraph, we see “the soft ash blowing in lose swirls over the blacktop.” The man keeps his face covered with a white cotton mask. In the last sentence of the third paragraph, we learn that the child is a boy, and the boy is the “warrant” for the man. And even a comma is spared in the last sentence of that paragraph: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”
The white cotton mask suggests that breath is not “precious” only because it is a child’s breath. ALL breath is precious when the air is full of “soft ash blowing in loose swirls.” Anyone who has ever cleaned the ash out of the fireplace knows how fine it is, how you don’t want to take a lungful of it as you sweep. The environment the man and child inhabit is dark and growing darker, and fine ash covers everything, and they have to be wary as they make their pilgrimage south to warmer country.
If the boy is the warrant for the man, what would the man do without the boy? Is the theme of this story what Albert Schweitzer called his central tenet, the “reverence for human life?” Why is the landscape “godless” while the man considers the child the virtual “word of God?”
A few pages later McCormack brings religion back into this godless landscape:
It took two days to cross that ashen scabland. The road beyond ran along the crest of a ridge where the barren woodland fell away on every side. It’s snowing, the boy said. He looked at the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom.
They pushed on together with the tarp pulled over them. The wet gray flakes twisting and falling out of nothing. Gray slush by the roadside. Black water running from under the sodden drifts of ash. No more balefires on the distant ridges. He thought the bloodcults must have all consumed one another. No one traveled this road. No road-agents, no marauders. After a while they came to a roadside garage and they stood within the open door and looked out at the gray sleet gusting down out of the high country.
Again the narrative pace has to “conserve its breath.” There could have been a comma after “the tarp pulled over them.” Instead, there is a pause for breath and a continuation, each phrase a sentence in its own right, allowing for shortness of breath.
A little later, before we’ve read much more than half an hour into this tale, we get a picture of what the human environment was like several years earlier.
In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.
I thought of the “death of the humanities” when I read that reference to “old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night” at a time when all people appeared to be “creedless shells of men.” My late cousin Walt, the theologian, once quipped that “God is what’s left after everything else is gone.” In the narrative at hand, the life of the boy is the warrant for the life of the man, and it becomes apparent that the man has trouble breathing and that they are both slowly starving.
Halfway into the story,
They scrabbled through the charred ruins of houses they would not have entered before. A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting ductwork. He stood in a livingroom partly burned and open to the sky. The waterbuckled boards sloping away into the yard. Soggy volumes in a bookcase. He took one down and opened it and then put it back. Everything damp. Rotting. In a drawer he found a candle. No way to light it. He put it in his pocket. He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
Despite the desperation of the situation, this tale moves fast on a concentrated fuel that is McCormack’s imagination. The environment may be in the last stage of collapse, but the energy that sustains a consistent narrative “voice” is perfectly focused and tuned. I felt I was breaking the spell every time I had to set the story down, and I finished it in a single day’s reading. There is something affirmative in this bleak and hopeless tale, or you wouldn’t keep turning the pages. It shapes an answer to the puzzle of faith when everything around is “godless” or “creedless.” When you read it, let the sentences guide your speed. They will set your pace. Hold to the pace they set. Absorb. Reflect.