When we last left our plodding hero and traumatized boy, the two were wandering south across an American landscape. Exactly where is not that important in the story, but I suspect it is somewhere in the mid-west.
Regardless, up until this section I’m about to dissect, the two have been alone. The only other person they had met before this was a man who had emerged from a burning forest, smoldering and smoking having just been struck by lightning*, and the memory of the boy’s mother, a specter who plagues our hero’s mind. Besides these two, no other humans are about. They may be hinted at, hiding behind walls and dark houses, but none are introduced to the reader. It is just the boy and his father.
And the father constantly wonders whether he did the right thing in keeping the boy alive or not. Should he have allowed him to die with his mother?
And we find out the reason this is such a conundrum for him in this next section.
In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world, the fact the earth is scorched and uninhabitable isn’t enough of a challenge for the author’s characters. Oh, no. That would be too easy! The reality of their situation becomes clear when a truck rumbles along the road.
The man and boy are asleep off the road when they near. The man wakes with a start when he realizes what it is approaching. He and the boy take off into the forest and hide, but there is nowhere to hide. They find a ditch, but it is poor shelter.
A group of men on a truck, with a few walking along it, prowl along the road for a ways before the truck breaks down. While it is being repaired, one of the men go into the woods to relieve himself and come upon the man and the boy. There is an altercation. The boy is nabbed, the newcomer is shot. They run for their lives and lose all their gear.
After a freezing night trying to stay alive, they double back to recover what they can from their abandoned cart and find the remains of the man they shot. He’d been eaten by his comrades.
The man and boy take what they can use and leave. They spend the next night in a semi-truck jack-knifed across a bridge. In the morning, the man discovers that the back of the truck is filled with dead bodies.
At the end of this section, the boy and father continue moving forward, ever south, but now they are without essential supplies and have only a few meals left. They must find food and shelter. They come to a town and search for clothes and food where the buildings have already been picked clean of anything usable and edible.
The situation seems very dire.
The earth has been scorched beyond anything capable of giving life and the sun is obscured by dark clouds so nothing can grow from the ashes, what humans remain have left their humanity behind and have resorted to eating each other. A world so barbaric, is it any wonder his wife killed himself? What is the point of living?
Again, Mr. McCarthy never states any of these questions out right in the narrative, the dialogue, nor the character’s inner thoughts. We are simply presented with what the characters are doing and feeling right at that moment.
After the altercation with the man who found them, the boy is visibly traumatized by the incident. He was attacked, and saved by his father, but at the cost of one man’s life. The boy questions who they are:
I should have been more careful, he said.
The boy didn’t answer.
You have to talk to me.
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up.
Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
Even though the boy may not fully understand it, he wants to believe they are doing the right thing. That his life is worth the horrid ending of another. Maybe he is even wondering if his father is crazy.
And the father has made his own pact with his god. His god-given task is to save the boy and he’ll do anything to see that through.
I am tempted to over-analysis this section as I probably have done with the earlier sections, but I will leave you with your own thoughts. Suffice to say there is good reason the man questions his faith in both his god and humanity.
Until next time, read something fun!
*Which is a very odd thing, considering humanity is on the brink of collapse and this poor fellow gets struck by lightning? That’s got to be the worst kind of luck.