On The Road With America

In honor of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer, here’s a repost of a piece I wrote back in October, when The Road seemed like a metaphor for our national trajectory. Not much has changed:

A portion of my evening reading has been keeping me up deep into the night, placing me in the uncomfortable territory between sleep and thought, between the world of dreams and productive consciousness.

It’s not Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, a real reporter’s book by Thomas Ricks, which painstakingly lays out the claim for utter incompetence in Iraq. Nor is it Plan of Attack, by the former reporter Bob Woodward, an insider who flips on his Administration sources and gets them to turn viciously on each other.

Both books are chilling – horrific tales of a failed Presidency and an immoral foreign policy. But with those, I can take a sip, switch off the light, and slip into what Bob Dylan calls “a temporary death.”

Not so with The Road.

Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant portrait of humanity’s winter is a short read, but a very, very long digestion.

The story of a man and his son walking toward the sea after a cataclysm – nuclear? environmental? natural? we don’t know and aren’t told – is relentlessly bleak and pessimistic. Man has destroyed the planet; nothing grows. The only food surviving is years-old stores of goods as yet unfound by marauders and thin survivors – and other humans, hunted by gangs of killers.

A caution tale? I sensed none – just a tale, however horrible, however plausible. The ancient pull in the book is of a father’s determination to see his child outlive him; to see another generation on its way, in whatever landscape it finds itself. Ash falls. But a few hearts still beat.

All this is in long introduction to a recent post by Glenn Greenwald entited American values. These too can be thrown away, leaving us on a wild and abandoned road. Maybe McCarthy is sending a warning after all – surely, contemporary literature reaches beyond the headlines to capture the truth. This is ours:

…by studying the torture methods used by America’s enemies — those uncivilized, evil regimes and groups we are always hearing about — we learned how to torture people and then decided to copy their torture techniques. As always, the “rationale” of the Bush administration is that in order to defend our values and culture from the evil forces seeking to destroy us, we have to become as much like them as possible and copy their behavior….

… These extreme and vile techniques became standard operating procedure for how we interrogate detainees. Far worse, five years after September 11, the U.S. Congress — right out in the open — voted expressly to authorize the use of most if not all of these techniques and empower the President to use them at will. Put another way, our country, after five years of distance from 9/11 and after much debate and deliberation, decided to enshrine this behavior as legally authorized
and reflective of our new national values.

UPDATE: Six months after reading this book, it has remained with me; I consider its bleak landscape all the time. Maybe that’s just me. I’m not sure.