About half way through The Road, Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic father-and-son odyssey through a ravaged American South ubiquitously praised by the mainstream book review crowd, I decided that I need to hold out for the Hollywood movie version. Which, I desperately hope, will be a musical comedy. Because what this book is missing is some ebullient, old school show tunes. Either that, or the dramatic appearance of Yul Brynner's avenger from The Ultimate Warrior, or maybe Charlton Heston in his Mustang from The Omega Man, ready to kick some cannibal ass and put the narrative back on the path I have so permanently internalized since my Cold War youth, waiting expectantly for my own Boy and his Dog future.
The Road is the greyest book I have ever read. Grey skies, grey snow, grey-faced people camouflaged by grey blankets to hide from the predatory grey souls prowling the wastelands for sustenance. A father and son roaming alone in a world of irrevocably dead nature, devoid of hope, miserable death foretold from the first paragraph — "like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world."
If you happen to be the father of a boy around the same age as the boy in the story, every one of the 250-word vignettes that make up the 241 pages is a kick in the heart, a brutalization of one's readerly empathy. What an astonishing experimental conquest of mainstream publishing's commercial paradigm: all of the powers of this American master of post-minimalist Border Realism employed in a sustained, sensorily rich exploration of literally all of the darkest manifestations of human nature. So dark that even those of who pride ourselves on our hardened cynicism about such matters find it hard to stomach more than a few pages at a time. For such light prose to be able to burden the reader with such leaden moral gravity and empathic suffering. And to be a bestseller.
As you subject yourself to this persistent narrative bludgeoning and pass the half way mark, the thing finally lightens up as McCarthy's andelope prose style flirts with self-parody and leads to the revelation that The Road marks a strange new intersection of pop culture and high culture: the first literary realist zombie novel.
As a mainstream grand master rather than a genre hack, Mr. McCarthy can be forgiven for not knowing that the whole secret of a great post-apocalyptic story is to play to white male fantasies of dominion, as in, the catastrophe will be fun because I will survive and it will all be *mine*? Brian Aldiss' cosy catastrophe:
"Story in which horrific events are overwhelming the entirety of human civilization, but the action concentrates on a small group of tidy, middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon protagonists. The essence of the cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off."
The colonial (American and Australian) manifestation of this genre fused with lone cowboy fantasies to produce a more rugged variation featuring solitary antiheroes loaded up with unwired cyberpunked artifacts of civilization roaming the trackless wastes, as they uncover the truths of human nature hidden in plain sight, their hardened hearts compelled to help the weaker but nobler survivors take baby steps back toward some sort of civilization. Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) is probably the masterpiece of this genre, its "last of the V-8 interceptors" kinesis so powerful that it reaches across the decades to inspire high-speed reenactments.
Most are earnest social science fictions with a lot of chewed scenery, the genre bookended with the early 1970s Charlton Heston variations in Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man (with Soylent Green a more urban dystopic variation), and the post-Reagan Kevin Costner epics The Postman and Waterworld. In between, a motherlode of B-movies that revel in the inevitable chaos of the collapse of civilization and the depopulation of the earth, many of them one step beyond Roger Corman territory, like The Ultimate Warrior (see a shirtless Yul Brynner cut off his own hand to save the last packet of seeds rather than the heroine!) and Damnation Alley (see Jan-Michael Vincent motorcycle jump over the giant mutant scorpion like some post-apocalyptic cross between Spicoli and Evel Knievel!). As Kim Newman notes in his ultimate Baedeker, Apocalypse Movies, it's no accident that the only novels of so many great SF writers to be adapted for film are post-apocalyptic.
The fantasy was so persistent in the mid- to late Cold War period, people invented games to explore it more deeply. Most notably, the RPG Gamma World, a D&D-style scenario in which one's character got to roam a post-apocalyptic America scavenging the ruins of civilization and having a swell time doing it. Often with really cool radioactive mutations. I recall the profound satisfaction I obtained as an adolescent mapping out, Game Master style, the post-apocalyptic landscape of the city I grew up in, and envisioning my mutant avatar's exploration of the abandoned shopping malls and high-rises of my imagination.
Alas, as the Hurricane Katrina disaster showed, typical mass catastrophes aren't so cozy for the victims, and upper middle class professionals loading the kids in the Volvo and heading to the Four Seasons Houston don't really qualify as Hestonian lone heroes. Watching the news coverage in 2005, as the disaster movie expectations dissipated while the grim scene of abandonment and Hobbesian disorder played out, you could almost hear the gears grinding in the establishment meme machine. (I am still waiting for the installment of Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans, with the cheat code that turns your 'Cuda into a swamp boat.)
The private yearning of all of these narratives is some vestige of community (and even love) to crack through the despair like a tiny beam of light on a cloudy day. But what happens to the literature of apocalypse when it feels like the apocalypse is actually happening? More grim tales of putatively realist imminent Hells, devoid of hope, like The Road? Dude, tell Jan-Michael to pass the spliff and pull over for some Cheetos.
(p.s. -- for a *grey* novel that's actually *fun* to read, try Jon Armstrong's amazing Grey, just out from the superstars at Night Shade Books. Back to back eyeball stomping -- Franny and Zooey in Mirrorshades, like a postcyberpunk Bret Easton Ellis.)