It’s been a bit arctic here, lately. Last night we hit twenty-five below.
And I made the mistake of teaching Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for a recent mythology class. A cold, barren, hard-to-put-down book where the possibility of death (protagonists consumed by cannibals) exists on every page. You must flip them in order to keep father and son alive.
But when I first read it I was living in Mexico with my wife in a rooftop apartment. Just us, a warm breeze, lots of local tequila. The book was psychically and existentially traumatic, sure, but we moved on.
Now we are with child. An almost two-year-old, vital little boy whose safety and well-being and general happiness has palpitated our hearts. I’ve never felt so ferocious and freaked out in my life. The oxytocin has hit peak levels.
Which makes rereading The Road a kind of emotional high wire act. Teetering, tiptoeing, inching forward trying to imagine with every narrative step not only keeping a little boy alive, safe and warm, but also protecting his innocence in a world of bloodlust and ash.
Don’t look, says the story’s father. Turn away. Close your eyes. What you see you can never unsee.
The book has kick-started my apocalyptic imagination, dormant since childhood and the original Red Dawn. Back then, the idea of total societal collapse was kind of cool. Especially as it promised to disrupt school and implied romps through the woods with intimate friends and homemade weapons.
These days, all I can think about is my boy.
“How much food do we have?” I recently asked my wife after a fitful night of sleep. “I mean, if we had to live on what’s in the house, how long could we survive?”
It was still dark. I couldn’t see her face.
“Um, we have a pound or two of quinoa,” she said. “Some pasta. I don’t know, maybe a few weeks.”
“It’ll be water that’s most important,” I said. “It all comes down to water.”
We live on the shores of Lake Superior, almost 50,000 square miles of potential hydration (just need a little iodine!).
But maybe it’s everything else, the stuff beyond our most basic physical needs. It’s what might become of our neighbors—or rather, what they might become. It’s who will be a “good guy” and who will be a “bad guy,” who will collectivize and care for others and who will go selfishly rogue.
If it’s true we live our lives according to myths, I wonder to which ones all these Michiganders will subscribe.
I taught The Road in a mythology class because I was a bit sketchy on the pantheon, yet was asked to pinch-hit the entry-level English class as I saw fit.
So I made it up. Instead of asking my students to memorize all the Greek and Roman deities, I decided we would approach mythology as narrative, those deeply felt stories that tell us who the gods and heroes and monsters are. And who we are in their shadows.
These days, the collective imagination seems to center on the myth of endings. We are all zombies and empty streets and makeshift crossbows. God, it seems, has hightailed it into the cosmos.
The Road was a natural fit. In it we see perhaps the final evolution of the monster. From Beowulf, where grotesque, non-human “others” are off hording gold or terrorizing the mead-hall, to Frankenstein, where the monster emerges from human invention and hubris, to The Road, where the monsters are simply us—no more bloated physique or toothy maws. Just desperate, hungry people at the bottom of a slippery ethical slope.
And we get a nice updating of the classic hero’s journey, too, where a character is asked on (or forced into) a quest where he or she must cross a threshold from the known to the unknown, battle and die and resurrect, only to return home with some kind of elixir.
Gone now are the “huge, handsome, radiant, perfect” heroes of Gilgamesh or Beowulf. No more bulging muscles or monster-slaying baddass-itry.
In The Road, all we’ve got is a haggard, dying man—who promises even not to kill and eat a dog lest his son be contaminated by violence—and his boy, determined to carry some ambiguous “fire.” The book never names it. Perhaps it is the sacrifice of the palpably immediate (a body metabolizing its own body fat from hunger) for the sake of the abstract (goodness and mercy). The last remnant of God, perhaps. Kindness. Love. Innocence. An elixir without a home to return it to.
I’m tempted to say that McCarthy has given us our most potent post-apocalyptic model of heroism amidst ash. A critical mythology for an uncertain future.
It’s been cold enough these days that—along with fresh agony over how we might heat our home if the electricity goes out—we’ve been keeping the boy in bed with us. It’s just easier that way. Warmer. Safer.
At night I hear: a radiator clicking in its beautiful hot circulation. Sometimes the wind, sometimes the heavy trucks that come before morning to scrape away the snow. Everything humming normalcy. And I hear the braid of my family’s breath. And I hold my boy against my chest and stomach. Reach beyond him to his mother. Baby Kitty at our toes, three blankets deep, everything as it should be.
Tonight, no need for heroes and no monsters in sight. God has shown up too, as best I can tell, the manifest warmth of our bodies beneath the blankets. I praise him. I ask him to remain.