Monday, August 10, 2009

The Road Not Taken

FROM 2007

More than once I have failed to read the most recent selection of my book club, but before my failure was always due to busyness or laziness. I never just out and said, “I ain’t reading that one.” But I did this time, with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

I made this choice in the spirit of psychological self-preservation. I had read two reviews of the book and each of them left me in despair for hours afterward. If just these whiffs of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic nightmare made me feel hopeless, what would breathing deeply of it do to me? I decided not to take the chance.

If you don’t know of The Road, you should. It won the Pulitzer for fiction last year. This summer it was an Oprah book. The story goes like this: It is eight years since some unidentified catastrophic event destroyed all plant life and animals, except for humans, who survive by eating whatever they can find, including each other. The Times’ Janet Maslin calls the world McCarthy creates a “cold, wretched, wet, corpse-strewn, ashen landscape.” Through this lifeless hell a father and his eight-year-old son are walking, trying to avoid the cannibals and get from somewhere in the heartland to the Gulf of Mexico, hoping against hope that it will be a more hospitable environment. The father is determined to keep his son alive. That is the mission that keeps him going.

Grim stuff, but grim enough not to read? It is strange that I should be so intimidated by the subject matter of a book. Cannibalism? No problem. I watch documentaries about the Donner party and enjoy cannibalism jokes (“Serving his fellow man? I get it. Heh heh. Good one, Jim”). I have read gruesome literature before without flinching (How about that castration scene at the end of Light in August?). At times I have even arrived at that exalted state of aesthetic experience where a depressing story actually exhilarated me because it was so beautifully made (Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven comes to mind), and the critics all concur that The Road has that effect on readers who are open to McCarthy’s brilliance. And they say this book has an uplifting denouement, a small triumph of goodness, a suggestion that this boy has some redemptive, Promethean purpose. And it was an Oprah book, for crying out loud! I saw a shot of her and McCarthy chatting by the fire in a cozy den. They looked like they could have been talking about Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. How gutless am I not to read this book?

Part of what made me shy away is that, unlike the Indigo Girls, I can easily be convinced that we are gluttons for our doom. I didn’t read The Road for the same reason I didn’t see An Inconvenient Truth: I’m sold already. When the book first appeared I wondered if McCarthy were inspired by Richard Wilbur’s poem “Advice to a Prophet,” in which he advises a doomsday prophet to avoid talk of abstract numbers (“Our slow unreckoning hearts will be left behind/ unable to fear what is too strange”) and instead make people envision a world without nature, without the metaphor “in which beheld / The singing locust of the soul unshelled, / And all we mean or wish to mean.” Then again, I doubt McCarthy is trying to be that prophet. Everyone notes that he is vague on the subject of what caused the ecological disaster, so no one can turn his book into a sermon on global warming or nuclear disarmament or the Book of Revelation. Evidently, our attention is turned instead to the here and now, especially the relationship between the dogged father and his spirited son. That relationship, said the guys in my book group who followed through with The Road, is what carries the book.

But hearing that from my comrades made me even more confident in my decision not to read The Road. It would be bad enough to imagine myself in a ruined world. It would be a thousand times worse to imagine myself in that ruined world and responsible for the welfare of my son. My son - who just started kindergarten - and comes in as I write this to brightly announce that he now knows how to spell “bad cat.” How am I supposed to envision myself saving him from cannibals?

So instead of buying The Road, I bought The Dangerous Book for Boys, another recent publishing sensation that revolves around fathers and sons. The writers, a pair of English brothers named Iggulden, have created a compendium of what they regard as essential boy skills and knowledge: how to tie various knots, how to build a tree house, how to make your own battery, accounts of famous battles and the lives of heroic explorers. It is clearly a retro project, right down the Edwardian style of the cover. The point is to get boys away from their video games and out into the garage building cool stuff with their dads (and possibly memorizing some Kipling while they’re at it).

One problem with The Dangerous Book for Boys is that liking it puts you in some company you might not care for, such as Rush Limbaugh. He and some other conservative commentators have been hyping the book as an antidote to what they regard as the feminization of American culture, particularly in our schools. In a column praising the book, Christina Hoff Sommers predictably trots out a liberal strawman to beat up on, noting that The Dangerous Book for Boys “has almost nothing to say about feelings, relationships or how boys can learn to cry.” Has this woman never heard of Captain Underpants?

The Dangerous Book for Boys isn’t universally loved, of course. Ann Hulbert of Slate smells phony nostalgia. This is a book aimed at “Fathers eager to embrace a rustic vision of self-reliant and resourceful childhood that few of them actually experienced - and even more eager to believe that such a vision still holds an appeal for children, too.” And Charles McGrath of the Times observes that, the title notwithstanding, there is scarcely anything dangerous in the book at all: “The book includes almost none of the underground know-how that was part of the birthright of an American boy who grew up, say, in the 1950's: how to fashion a raft out of empty oil drums; how to siphon gasoline using just your mouth and a rubber tube; how to make a slingshot out of coat-hanger wire; how to light a cigarette in the wind; how to make a bomb from match heads and a piece of pipe.” Yes, the title misleads.

But all of those faults aside, I’m getting a kick out of The Dangerous Book for Boys. The knots are fun! I only learned the basic square knot when I was a kid, so the reef knot and the bowline are revelations to me. My son is having a good time with it, too – he’s turned into a little Boeing of paper airplanes. It might be a while before we get to the tree house or the go-cart (if ever), but I like having the book around just in case we do. We’ll always be careful not to ascribe any more cultural relevance to it (positive or negative) than it can really bear, and I’ll amuse myself by imagining the chapters that Cormac McCarthy might have written, to substitute for the ones about growing sunflowers and juggling: “How to Scrounge for Firewood in a Wasteland,” “How to Ration Your Bullets Wisely,” “How Not to Get Eaten.” Really dangerous stuff.

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