Once a year, I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a cathartic annual ritual for me. What is it about this novel that has such an impact on my soul and those of other readers? Who is the man who wrote it, and what was he trying to do with this story of a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape?
For answers to these questions, I decided to talk to a foremost expert on McCarthy’s work, as well as the literature of the American West in general. His name is Steven Frye and he’s a professor of English, a novelist in his own right, and the author and editor of several books about the reclusive, philosophical author, including Understanding Cormac McCarthy. We begin our conversation with some background on McCarthy and a discussion of his distinctive style and themes, and why he avoids the limelight and prefers to hang out with scientists over fellow artists. We then dive into The Road, and Steve unpacks what inspired it, as well as the authors and books that influenced it. We then dig into the big themes of The Road, and how it can be read as a biblical allegory that wrestles with the existence of God. We delve into the tension which exists between the father and son in the book, and what it means to “carry the fire.” We end our conversation with why reading The Road makes you feel both depressed and hopeful at the same time.
A spoiler alert here: If you haven’t read The Road yet, we do reveal some of the plot points in this discussion. Also, why haven’t you read The Road yet?
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Other books by Steven Frye, including his novel Dogwood Crossing
- McCarthy’s books mentioned in the show:
- The film adaptation of The Road
- The Santa Fe Institute
- Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- “Cat in the Rain” — short story by Ernest Hemingway
- “Indian Camp” — short story by Ernest Hemingway
- AoM Podcast #635: The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
- AoM Article: Carry the Fire
- AoM Article: Books So Good I’ve Read Them 2X (Or More!)
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, once a year, I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s become this cathartic annual ritual for me. What is it about this novel that has such an impact on my soul and those of other readers? Who’s the man who wrote it and what was he trying to do with the story of a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape? For answers to these questions, I decided to talk to a foremost expert in McCarthy’s work as well as the literature of the American West in general. His name is Steven Frye. He’s a professor of English and novelist in his own right, and the author and editor of several books about the reclusive philosophical author, including Understanding Cormac McCarthy.
We begin our conversation with some background on McCarthy and a discussion of his distinctive style and themes and why he avoids the limelight and prefers to hang out with scientists over fellow artists. We then dive into The Road. Steve unpacks what inspired it, as well as the authors and books that influenced it. We then dig into the big themes of The Road and how it can be read as a Biblical allegory that wrestles with the existence of God. We delve into the tension which exists between the father and son in the book, and what it means to carry the fire. And we end the conversation with why reading The Road makes you feel both depressed and hopeful at the same time. And a spoiler alert here, if you haven’t read The Road yet, we do reveal some of the plot points in this discussion. Also, why haven’t you read The Road yet? Go out, pick up a copy today, read it, you won’t regret it, then come back and listen to this episode. After show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/theroad.
Alright. Steve Frye, welcome to the show.
Steven Frye: Thanks for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of American Literature and you spend a lot of your career thinking about and writing about the works of Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite writers. How did you end up writing about Cormac McCarthy?
Steven Frye: Well, you know like a lot of folks, I encountered McCarthy first in 1992, with what most of us consider his breakout novel, that is All the Pretty Horses. He won the National Book Award for that one. And at the time I was in graduate school, finishing up my doctorate. And what I was studying in graduate school was the 19th century, the frontier novel of the 19th century, but I was also pretty heavily involved in studying Melville and Moby Dick. And I had a parallel interest in the literature of the American West, ’cause I’m from the West. And a friend of mine just said, “Hey, you should read this author, Cormac McCarthy, who just won the National Book Award.” So I did, I read All the Pretty Horses. And boy, I was just enraptured, certainly with the language, but also with the kind of philosophical portent and the themes that were sort of jumping out at me.
And so I moved back immediately and read Blood Meridian, had a similar response. It’s a different book, I had a different response, but still I was enraptured with it. And then I kinda continued on, finished my doctoral program, became a professor and was doing most of my work on the 19th century. And I just followed McCarthy through as The Border Trilogy came out. And just kind of a slow burn, just enjoying it, wasn’t what I was necessarily specializing in, but in sort of the late ’90s, I went to a Cormac McCarthy panel, I presented on the Cormac McCarthy Panel of the American Literature Association, and met with some of the founders of the organization and sort of got involved with that group of folks, and went back and read everything. And there’s a real connection between McCarthy as a 20th century writer and the 19th century. Of course, his famous… In his first major interview with Richard Woodward in 1992, he said quite openly that his favorite book was Moby Dick. So I hooked into it at that point, and it’s been almost 30 years now.
Brett McKay: So, today I’d like to focus in on one novel, The Road. But before we do, let’s talk about some background on McCarthy and what he was like as a child, as a young man, and his themes and his style of writing. So, let’s start with his childhood, where did McCarthy grow up? What was his childhood like? Were there any signs as a young man that he’d become one of the greatest living American novelist ever?
Steven Frye: Well, there were, but not particularly the signs that you might expect of a writer. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee when he was 4 years old. His father was a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. And of course, that was Roosevelt’s project to modernize the region down in the south, this is Eastern Tennessee. He grew up in an upper middle class family, went to parochial school. And there’s no real evidence that he was all that involved in reading, but he is quoted as saying that nobody in school really had that many hobbies, but he had all the hobbies that you could even name. And so there was this innate curiosity that if we look in retrospect, could manifest itself in all kinds of different vocations. But for McCarthy, that curiosity led him to reading a lot, and then sort of incorporating and considering all that he’s encountering as he reads in the things he writes about, particularly philosophy, theology, science, all these varied subjects. So no, there wasn’t a standard ambition to write when he was a young boy, but an innate curiosity that he… I think just has existed throughout his life.
Brett McKay: So as a young boy, wasn’t much of a writer, wasn’t much a reader, he gets into college and it seems like he started just reading a ton, and that’s when he started to write. What was his first works like?
Steven Frye: Well, they bear the marks of his later works. I’ve heard that he doesn’t like the idea that people dig them out and read them, but he has two short stories that he published in the Phoenix, which was a school newspaper there at the University of Tennessee, that’s where he went to school in two different stints. Actually, I should say that he went for a while to University of Tennessee, then he left and went into the Air Force and came back, and it’s when he came back that he began writing. He wrote a short story called “Wake for Susan,” another short story called “A Drowning Incident,” and he won an award, a campus award for that, and that seems to have kind of got him going with writing. They have the same kind of rural settings, same preoccupation with the grotesque, with violence, with intense human emotion, abnormal kind of responses to circumstances, and also the same kind of lyricism and focus on language that we would associate with really all of his works.
Brett McKay: And when did he start experiencing popular and critical success as a writer?
Steven Frye: Well, really, he didn’t experience popular success until 1992 with “All the Pretty Horses,” but he experienced critical success really in 1965 with “The Orchard Keeper.” His first editor was Albert Erskine, who was William Faulkner’s former editor, and he got all kinds of, or at least a number of grants and scholarships and funding from the Guggenheim and the Faulkner Foundation. It was in 1982, in fact, that he won a MacArthur Genius Grant, which is pretty big. You don’t get much bigger than that. And yet, his novels did not sell up until, I believe it was, “All the Pretty Horses.” None of his novels sold more than 5000 copies in hardback, so he was critically very accepted and very lauded, but not popular until “All the Pretty Horses.”
Brett McKay: So one thing that someone who reads a Cormac McCarthy novel will notice is that his writing style is very distinct, it’s very different. For example, “The Road” has no quotation marks, so the dialogue is, you’re just reading it. But it’s kind of jarring at first, but then it just… It feels normal and natural. Beyond that, not using quotation marks, is there something distinct about McCarthy’s writing style that you see in all of his works? And how do you think he developed that?
Steven Frye: Well, I think he developed it by reading a lot and writing a lot. That sounds glib and silly, but the fact is that’s how you do it. And you said distinctive, it’s utterly distinctive. And what characterizes it is, first of all, sometimes he’s a minimalist, sometimes his style becomes ornate, he does not use a lot of subordination, he uses a heck of a lot of parallelisms, Polysyndeton, which is the linking together of independent clauses with a conjunction, and I think he derives that a lot from Hemingway and Faulkner, they both use that technique. So I think he developed it again, by reading it, maybe even a kind of unconscious level, reading some of his favorite authors. But at the same time, his blending of this minimalism with very, very sometimes ornate and sometimes even obtuse language, I think is very self-conscious. He uses sometimes a very archaic vocabulary, a specialized vocabulary, and I frankly don’t think he intends us necessarily to be sitting there with a dictionary. I think one of the reasons why he might… If you don’t mind, Brett, what I wanna do is, if I could, I’d like to read a passage to explain.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’d be great. Perfect.
Steven Frye: Okay, good. This one, this passage comes from his second novel, which is The Orchard Keeper, and in this novel, an infant child has been left in the woods to die. And the narrator describes the child in this way as it’s laying there. It says, “It howled execration upon the dim camarine world of its nativity, wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless Paraclete, beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor.” Now, that ornateness and that kind of language, I’m actually teaching that novel or finished teaching that novel to a group of graduate students, and one student called out that very passage, it’s a very famous passage in McCarthy, and very politely, but reasonably asked, “Why not say it a different way? I don’t entirely understand what he’s doing.” And so what I had the students do is I said, “Alright, let’s do an experiment, a thought experiment. Why don’t we try to translate that into a more understandable language?”
And so I had the students do that, and they’re great students, but they were really reluctant to share their translations, because they all intuited the fact that you can’t take a phrase or a term like witless Paraclete. How do you translate that? Do you say, unintelligent holy spirit? Because that’s what it means. Right? And yet, that term “witless Paraclete” really evokes a sense of mystery, strangeness and a kind of metaphysical dread. He’s untranslatable and I think he tries to be. And part of it is to sort of evoke the sense of mystery and the strange.
Brett McKay: Okay, so his writing style, it’s varied, it can be mysterious, it can be a mixture of plain-spokenness with kind of an archaic language. That’s his writing style. Let’s talk about themes. You mentioned some of his themes earlier on dealing with the grotesque, with violence. What else? What are some of the other themes you see pop up over and over again in McCarthy’s works?
Steven Frye: Well, one of the things I would say about McCarthy is that he is a philosophical novelist. And not all novelists, not all serious novelists would I call a philosophical novelist. And what I mean by that is that he deliberately engages existing philosophical systems, cosmological systems, places them in the context of a narrative and sort of sees how they play out. And of course, one of the biggest issues we confront in philosophy is metaphysics and the question of, Does God exist? But more than that, not only Does God exist? But, What is God’s nature? Does God care for us? Is God in any way anthropomorphic in his emotions?
Is God just a cosmic joker as Melville pondered? So metaphysics and the question of our relationship to the divine or lack thereof, is central to his works. Epistemology, the question of knowledge. So he will say over and over again, he refers to people’s minds as things in and of themselves. So the question is, as a thing out there in nature, can the mind know all that there is to know about the very universe that the mind exists within? And that’s a question that he seeks to answer without ever fully answering. All of this is not abstract in McCarthy, because these questions, I mean, I like to think of it this way.
When I was a small child, I had a nightmare at some point in time and my Missouri grandmother who had a third grade education said something like, I don’t know, something like, “Steve, remember the lilies of the field. God’s there to protect you, he’ll take care of you.” And I’ve thought about that, and it seems like a cliche, but my grandmother with her third grade education was a philosopher, she had a world view, and she thought about that world view. And that world view was conditioned by the fact that she lost a child, it was part of how she coped with that. That’s what McCarthy is about. It’s about taking philosophical ideas, placing them in narrative, and in doing so, seeing how those ideas shake out in the lives of people. And so, metaphysics and epistemology, but then he confronts us with something fundamental, and that is that we exist in a violent world. How does that experience, how should that experience condition how we think about meaning, purpose, and value? And in the midst of all of that, and we see this especially in The Road, there is this emphasis on human community and brotherhood and paternal love, those kinds of things.
Brett McKay: Well, going back to this idea of the exploration of violence. One of the things that always strikes me about McCarthy and his treatment of violence, you read it and it’s very jarring, but at the same time, you’re reading it like, “Well, there’s nothing… ” he’s not really grotesque about it, but for some… The way he’s able to use language, you feel the… Like in The Road, he doesn’t get really detailed in the gory details too much, but you’re left with the impression, you’ll see this in No Country for Old Men, you’re left with this impression like, “Boy, something really bad just happened,” and you feel it viscerally.
Steven Frye: Oh yeah, that’s true. I think I’ve listened a number of times too, he’s got an interview, or he does a three-way interview with Verner Herzog and another scientist, I don’t remember the scientist’s name. Herzog was very, very complementary on McCarthy almost to the point where he seemed politely embarrassed, but Herzog said that something like he… And by his strange, unique and totally distinctive use of language, he sort of ascribes a world into being. So on the one hand, you look at it and you think, well, this is not… In scare quotes, realistic particularly. But in a sense, it’s not objectively realistic, it’s not how we necessarily sort of see the world, but I think McCarthy starts to capture in these moments of violence, intense violence, how we might feel the world, how we might fully experience that moment beyond simple sight and smell or taste, but the sort of extra-sensory psychological perceptions. I think that’s what he’s about, is sort of creating a sense of the horrific that is not simply sensory, but psychological.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned his interest in epistemology and metaphysics. Some people don’t know this about McCarthy, he’s like a… He works at the Santa Fe Institute, which is sort of like the Science Institute. What’s a novelist doing at the Santa Fe Institute, where they’re exploring issues of science?
Steven Frye: Well, I think there was some serendipity. One, McCarthy is known for not really liking to hang out with artists or writers. He much prefers to hang out with scientists. When he won the MacArthur Genius Grant, he met Mary Gelman, who was a founder of the Santa Fe Institute, and they became friends, and Mary Gelman is a Nobel prize winning physicist. So it’s through that relationship that he got involved with the Santa Fe Institute, was already living in the Southwest. And he became involved there probably for the same reason that when he was a small child, he had more hobbies than anybody else, and that science and all of these questions became just central to what he wanted to inquire into.
And so he’s a fellow there, he writes there or has for a number of years, helps people edit their work, he’s done that a bit. And also, the Santa Fe Institute itself is a sort of cutting-edge institute that’s dedicated to complexity science, that is complex systems theory in a multi-disciplinary kind of… Taking a kind of multi-disciplinary approach. So this idea, what they used to call Chaos Theory, now they tend to call it complex adaptive systems, that really is a science, but it also has these pretty powerful implications when it comes to questions of determinism versus free will, which are themes that have preoccupied him. So he’s interested, I think, in seeing how that stuff plays out in the physical world and in the scientific realm. I think it comforts him a bit because science offers at least a limited kind of certitude, and he said that, that he likes that some things you can boil down to fact.
Brett McKay: Okay, you mentioned that he doesn’t like to hang out with other writers and artists, he’s reclusive. He avoids the spotlight. He’s done very few interviews. Why is that? Is there just something about his personality that just doesn’t like the spotlight?
Steven Frye: Well, anything I would say about that would be pretty speculative.
Brett McKay: Yeah, sure.
Steven Frye: Because there is no biography on him, and what we know, we have to sort of extrapolate a little bit from the few interviews that he’s given. My sense of it though, is that it’s an aspect of personality, some people just don’t like the spotlight, some people don’t like to speak publicly, some people just revel in that. There’s a sense that he doesn’t care for that kind of celebrity, but I also think that there’s a strong sense that too much celebrity and too much engagement with other people who are commenting on your work can have a corrosive effect upon the work itself. And I think, my sense is that he is a consummate artist, as much as he doesn’t necessarily wanna hang out with other ones, he’s utterly uncompromising in his commitment to his art. Again, he was in his 60s before he really started making any real money at it, and yet maintained that commitment. So yeah, I do think that it’s both. I think it’s an aspect of personality, but I also think that there’s a sense that on almost a very practical sense that it could compromise what you’re trying to do with yourself as an artist.
Brett McKay: No, that makes sense. I’ve noticed my favorite writers, so McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, they all are kind of recluse, they don’t get out in the spotlight very much. I’m sure it’s personality, but I think I wonder if it also for McMurtry, he just passed away this past year, if it was for him, the same sort of thing, he didn’t want it to corrupt his work in a way.
Steven Frye: McMurtry just wanted to own a book store in two places. He’s very popular in terms of having his novels adapted into cinema and really fine, fine films that came out of my McMurtry’s work, but still I think there was kind of the same thing with McCarthy, a sense of, I’m doing something that I know what I’m doing and I should not compromise it by too much chatter.
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And now back to the show.
Alright, so let’s dig into The Road because this is my favorite novel, and I think it’s a great… If you have never read Cormac McCarthy, it’s a great one to start out with. It was turned into a movie. It came out in 2006. General plot is that there’s a nameless father and a nameless son traveling through a post-apocalyptic landscape in America, somewhere in the southeast, and they’re just trying to survive. Do we know what inspired McCarthy to write The Road, was there something that happened to him?
Steven Frye: Well, he tells us actually, in his one TV interview and if I’m recalling it, I think I’ll give the outlines of it pretty correct, that he was with his young son at the time. He had a son late John Francis, who was probably eight or 10 years old at the time, and he was in a hotel with his son who was sleeping on the bed and McCarthy says he was looking out the window late at night, and he imagined what the world might look like 50 or 100 years at that moment. I think he was standing between his son and that idea inspired The Road which he wrote fairly quickly, it didn’t take him that long. So that moment is part of what inspired him, but I think clearly what inspired him at a deeper level is having his second son at that age in a time when it seemed to have a pretty, pretty profound impact on him.
Brett McKay: And how is The Road similar to McCarthy’s previous works and how is it different?
Steven Frye: Well, stylistically, it’s somewhat different. I think that McCarthy’s associated with a kind of ornate style, or at least that’s what people comment on when they look at his earlier works. If you look at those words, you see a kind of minimalism there too in different places, but The Road is much more overtly minimalist and much more conscious of the legacy of Hemingway. There’s even a couple of places in The Road, one where the father recalls a time where a cat is sheltering under a table or something, and that recalls Hemingway’s Cat In The Rain. The father recalls a moment when the boy is being born and the narrator in the thoughts of the man says her screams don’t matter or something to that effect, and that is a direct reference to Hemingway’s Indian Camp. So you have this minimalist style, and I think the more ornate, I suppose the more archaic style is a small percentage of The Road. So stylistically, it’s actually very different, but I think in so many ways, The Road is a culmination of the kinds of things that he’s been thinking about all the way since 1965, and the kind of things that many or most of us think about as we sort of go through a life, you know.
Brett McKay: Yes. So you mentioned the influence of Hemingway, McCarthy, famously said, books are made of books. Besides Hemingway, were there any other authors or books that influenced The Road?
Steven Frye: Well, of course, McCarthy in general, his favorite book is Moby Dick, which he reads quite consciously or I think quite often. But I think, and many folks haven’t talked about this, McCarthy mentions his admiration for Dostoyevsky. And we have to remember that The Road was written roughly at the same time that McCarthy wrote the Sunset Limited, that is his play. And Dostoyevsky, of course, was an orthodox Christian writer, but coming out of an existential tradition, and I think that the Brothers Karamazov is a pretty direct influence on The Road. And in the Brothers Karamazov you have two brothers that debate the existence in the nature of God. Ivan, the atheist says, “He will not believe as long as one child suffers,” and Alyosha really doesn’t have a response to that except to try to live a good life. And I think that basic question, that basic dynamic and concern is at the center of this novel, which is very much about a child who is suffering. Yeah, Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov, I think in particular.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about themes, what do you think are the big themes in The Road?
Steven Frye: Well, I think it’s a book about, and it’s asking that fundamental question, Does God exist? If God exists, what is my relationship to him? I think, and I should credit a friend of mine and a fellow scholar, Allen Josephs, who wrote an article called The Quest for God in The Road. He published it in a collection of essays that I edited, the Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy. And he actually teases out all of the references to God and to godlessness and demonstrates through this detailed textual analysis that the novel ways, in a way that other McCarthy works don’t, ways in the direction of the belief in not only God, but something on the order of a Christian God that is beneficent. And I think struggling with that question and tentatively resolving that question very tentatively, is the central theme that is about. And the thing of it is that McCarthy is un-sentimental about the question, and when I say that, I mean that often times when people grapple with or veer toward belief, they veer in the direction of a kind of sentimental conception of the divine, and that’s not McCarthy.
I think these questions, can we find hope in a world that… All we have to do is look at CNN to see McCarthy’s world. We see violence everywhere. And in the context of that, is it reasonable to be hopeful about human existence and the human experience. And McCarthy wants to ask that question in this novel, but he says, “You know, if you’re gonna find hope,” and I think he does, “You have to find it after you have immersed yourself in an abyss, and if you find hope there, then it’s a stalwart hope indeed.” And that ultimately is how the novel plays out. Again, tentatively, and some disagree with me, and there’s different ways to read it, but that’s how I read it, moving in the direction of a kind of Christian existentialism, in a way.
Brett McKay: It’s kind of kick your guardian in a way.
Steven Frye: Yes, exactly, exactly.
Brett McKay: A lot of times, The Road has been compared to a biblical allegory, ’cause it’s… By biblical in that tradition of biblical, it’s exploring these big questions of existence, human existence, whether God exists, but it’s also there’s violence mixed in with it. Maybe off the top of your head, what are some examples, like very obvious examples of biblical references that we see pop up in the Road?
Steven Frye: Well, with reference to the boy, he’s quite clearly configured as a Christ figure, he’s associated again with the Word of God, the man describes him as a golden chalice that is a liturgical image. The father refers to him directly when he’s talking to the old man, Eli. He says, “What if I said he is a God?” So there’s references to the boy as a Christ figure, and he also says that the sacred idiom is shorn of all reference, and so you might imagine that he’s just using images of the divine as a figure of speech, but the boy, if you think about childhood, my experience with children when I was a child is they can be pretty brutal, they can be kind of nasty. The adults in my life have been much kinder to me than the kids were when I was a kid, but this child is kind, that’s the essence of his being in an environment where it compromises his own security and survival to be that way, so he’s configured as a Christ figure, that’s a reference. The larger reference is the motif of the wilderness, some folks have read the landscape itself as a kind of simple metaphor for a kind of cosmological void, and their reading is kind of sort of happy atheist reading.
The idea is that, okay, the world ends, we exist in a meaningless universe, but we can experience a kind of contingent meaning in the relationships we have with people. And I don’t wanna just absolutely dismiss that reading, I think it’s there, but I do think that you shouldn’t read the landscape as a simple metaphor, he’s reading it typologically. It is the same kind of wilderness that you find in the Old Testament where the Israelites are tested by God in a desert before they’re delivered ultimately to their mission into their understanding of their role in the world. And the same thing that Christ experiences in the wilderness, when he goes for 40 days and 40 nights where he’s quite literally tempted by Satan. Here you have the man being tempted by this character Eli who tries to tempt him into hopelessness, a kind of Satan figure, so the boy is Christ figure, all of this kind of liturgical and Eucharistic imagery, and also this broad leitmotif of the wilderness that I think should be read typologically.
Brett McKay: No, there’s a great example of the boy being a Christ figure, so there’s this scene, I’ll read the dialogue here.
Steven Frye: Sure.
Brett McKay: It’s the father talking to the boy. It says, “The man squatted and looked at him. ‘I’m scared,’ he said, ‘Do you understand? I’m scared.’ The boy didn’t answer, he just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing. You’re not the one who has to worry about everything, the boy said something, but he couldn’t understand him. What he said, he looked up, his wet and grimy face. ‘Yes, I am,’ he said, ‘I am the one.'” The I am the one is the Christ reference.
Steven Frye: Well, you understand that, Brett because you read it precisely as it needs to be read. Okay, and that is the emphasis on the final statement, I am the one. You placed a real emphasis on that, and I suppose you don’t have to do that, but for example, and I like some things about the cinematic adaptation, but there’s things I don’t like about it, and in that adaptation, Hilko had the boy say, “I am the one, okay?” Instead of the more portentous, “I am the one.” Ending on one, you’re right about that, that’s a point where he’s announcing himself, not in an arrogant way, not even in a fully aware way, he’s not saying I’m God, but he’s saying, I’m playing the role of a kind of Christ in a decimated world, and that is I’m trying to bring peace to it and benevolence.
Brett McKay: Well, after you’ve finished The Road, have you been able to figure out McCarthy’s view on God?
Steven Frye: Well, I take him at his own work. In other words, McCarthy said when he was interviewed about The Road, he said, you know when he was asked, “Have you got the whole God thing figured out?” He said, “Well, it depends upon what day you ask me.” He said, “I think it’s good to pray. You don’t have to have a clear idea of who or what God is to pray. You might even be quite doubtful about the whole business.” I think that McCarthy’s content to be doubtful, he says in a later interview, he said that he has a great admiration for the spiritual view of life, he’s asked, “Is the God in The Road the God you encountered when you were in Catholic school?” And McCarthy said, “It may be,” but he associates spirituality with being decent and with being ethical.
And he says that in the same interview, he wants to be a more spiritual person in order to be a better person. So I do think McCarthy’s content to sort of embrace what is genuinely our existential condition, which is we simply don’t know the answer to that question in any kind of a solid or empirical way. We can take various leaps of faith, but ultimately they are leaps, and he’s content to rest in that uncertainty, but he has a real sympathy for atheistic view of the world. Now, again, he experiments with ideas, and I think he’s experimenting with a kind of Christian existentialism in The Road, but he’s experimenting with Gnosticism in Blood Meridian and other things and in other books. So what I would say is, I would attach the term heterodox to McCarthy with respect to the God question.
Brett McKay: One, it seems to, something he does with this book is that he finds the divine in the relationship between the Father and the Son and it’s almost this relationship between the Father and son, it’s a materialist spirituality, ’cause you see over and over again, the father holding the boy, wiping blood off and gore off the boy’s head, the boy pleading out for the father, and so it’s a very visceral, very grounded in nature thing that’s going on, but there’s also a… It’s tinged with spirituality at the same time.
Steven Frye: Well, no, you’re totally right. That comes, I think, pretty clear toward the end of the book. Remember in the book, when the man is dying and he’s talking to the boy, and he says to the boy, he says, “You know what, you’re going to be okay,” and it’s pretty clear that the man is confident that the boy will be “lucky” will be okay, and that goodness will find him. But what the man says too is he says, “Look, you have to talk to me, and if you make it like talk, you will hear me respond to you. I will talk back to you.” And the boy says, “Okay,” he’s of course discovered by the family, and he encounters a woman, and I’ll go ahead and read what the woman says, if you don’t mind.
Brett McKay: Sure.
Steven Frye: She says, first of all, the boy is… Well, here’s what the woman says, she says, she would talk to him sometimes about God, he tried to talk to God, but the best thing was to talk to his father, and he did talk to him, and he didn’t forget. The woman said, “That was all right.” She said, “The breath of God was his breath yet, though it passed from man to man through all of time.” And that is the end of the plotted novel for the mysterious kind of epilogue. The idea there is not… You could imagine someone who is from a more maybe traditional Christian perspective saying, “Well, okay, you can go ahead and talk to your father, but keep trying to talk to God too.” That’s not what the woman says, what the woman says is, or essentially what she implies is that as you talk to your father, you are talking to God, because God was physically and in a very real way manifest in the relationship you have with your father and the love that bound you together. So God is not in some abstract other place, he’s right there, wherever we find ourselves bound to each other by love. And when I use the term love, I mean it, I don’t think this is for McCarthy. This is not a kind of, give me a hug love.
Brett McKay: It’s not sentiment.
Steven Frye: No, it’s not sentimental at all, it’s I will kill anyone who touches you, love. And that kind of conception of the divine and of mercy is all over Flannery O’Connor, all over any number of other authors who are grappling with this kind of Christian existentialism. So yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s a material manifestation of the divine, it doesn’t mean that the divine isn’t out there somewhere else, but it is here and now, do we see God? Every time we see each other. Would be the claim from this world view. And again, it’s obviously very conjectural, and I don’t know that McCarthy believes it at every moment in his life, but he put it in play in this novel.
Brett McKay: So there’s this deep and abiding love between father and son, but throughout the novel you see a tension between them as well. They’re kind of getting these very tense, they don’t yell at each other very often, but there’s definitely a tension, what is the source of the tension?
Steven Frye: Well, that’s a tough one to… It’s not really much more complex than the fact that the father feels like he’s the one that has to handle things. Nothing will get done, and their fate is in his hands. The father’s trajectory toward this kind of moment at the end where there’s this sort of guarded but powerful kind of belief, is not a thing that the father has early on. He believes that what’s gonna happen is gonna happen because he does it. The boy believes that they have a deeper and greater responsibility to do what’s right, outside of the survival impulse. Now, that’s part of McCarthy’s sort of grappling with post-Darwinian themes. You know, What kind of responsibility do we have when all the strictures of civilization are stripped away. Does that responsibility remain? And for the boy, it does. And that’s I think the source of their tension.
Brett McKay: And there’s also an alienation. There’s the scene where the father is looking at the boy, and the father realizes, I’m pretty much an alien to my son, I’m from a completely different planet, ’cause I knew the world before this grey hellscape has descended. And so there’s gonna be a gap from us all the time. I felt like that with my own kids, there’ll be moments where I’ll look at them and I’m like, They don’t know… There is this like, they don’t know the world that I know. I don’t think we’ll ever able to close that gap completely.
Steven Frye: No, no. And I think that that’s part of the blend of philosophical and psychological questions, because I think there’s something that’s very almost allegorical about their relationship. As real as it comes to us in their various expressions to one another, Brett, I would say, you’re putting it well. In other words, that is our condition. I have two grown children, I love them deeply. I actually first read this novel when my son was almost exactly the same age, so pretty much floored me in that context, but at the same time, the idea is, we can never enter into another consciousness. That’s an existential condition as well, right? We’re always alienated from each other. No one knows what we’re feeling, perceiving, or even if we’re perceiving in the same way. And I think that’s a part of the philosophical underpinnings of the novel.
Brett McKay: Right. It goes to that epistemology question that McCarthy has explored.
Steven Frye: Exactly. And the question of subjective versus objective knowledge. You know, we can both pick up the modem that’s in front of me and say it’s a modem. But the deeper things that go to the question of what it means to know something in a subjective level. To feel something and experience something is an entirely different thing.
Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about the most famous line from The Road, that’s, “Carry the Fire.” It’s something the father and the son tell each other that they’re doing, that, they’re carrying this fire. What is the fire? Did McCarthy… Did he tip his hand and lay his card or, this is what with the fire is? Or you can you just sort of suss that out from reading the book?
Steven Frye: Sure, sure. I think he wants it to be an evocative image of divinity at one level, but how that divinity is fully defined, it’s an obtuse and strange enough image that allows for us to read it in different ways. What’s interesting, is that McCarthy’s been toying with that image for decades. It appears all the way back in some of his earliest novels, but it really appears, and there’s a kind of a through line that appears with the epilogue to Blood Meridian. And after a bunch of horrific stuff has happened, you have this epilogue that’s outside the plotted novel, and you’ve got this group of figures that are walking through a nighttime desert landscape and they’re using some kind of implement to strike the ground and release the fire that, “God has put there.” And then the epilogue just ends. But it’s the fire that God has put there. And then at the end of No Country for Old Men. And Tom Bell has a dream about his father, and they were riding out in the wilderness, and the father rides passed him with a gourd that has fire in it. And the father passes him and it becomes dark again, but he has this strange kind of faith that the father will be waiting for him in all that cold and all that dark.
So again, with all the sort of God stuff that is playing out in these later novels, I think the idea of embodying it in an image that is both simultaneously evocative and mysterious. Remember that the final word of the novel, and I think the final word that might be on McCarthy is “Mystery,” related to this metaphysical question. But at the same time, I think it is an evocative image of at least a potential divinity.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah. I can see that. And for me, I also see carrying the fire as maintaining goodness. It’s doing the right thing, even in really dark times. ‘Cause in the novel, some people, they use the societal collapse as an excuse and to give into their worst impulses. There’s these gangs of baby-eating barbarians going around. And the boy and the father, they’re trying not to give into that. They’re trying to be what they call The good guys, so throughout the novel, you hear them encouraging each other saying, “We’re the good guys.” The son is always asking, “We are the good guys, right?” So they’re trying to maintain goodness, keeping the flame of it alive. And the father is trying to pass that down to his son. So it’s that. And to me, every time I read about carrying the fire, I see hope. It’s hope. It’s hope when everything seems hopeless. That’s the fire.
Steven Frye: And the guy wearing the parka at the end, oddly enough, seems to know what he means. Finally, he says, “Yeah, we’re carrying the fire.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, they’re one of the good guys.
Steven Frye: Yeah, they’re one of the good guys. That’s right.
Brett McKay: Well, I’d like to read, this is my favorite scene, every time I probably will start bawling like a baby after I read this, but it really sums it up. It’s at the very end. The father is dying, he’s got what sounds like tuberculosis, some kind of lung problem. And he’s talking to his son and the son says, “I wanna be with you.” “You can’t,” “Please.” “You can’t! You have to carry the fire!” “I don’t know how to.” “Yes, you do.” “Is it real? The fire?” “Yes, it is.” “Where is it?” “I don’t know where it is.” “Yes, you do.” Sorry.
Steven Frye: You’re doing great.
Brett McKay: “It’s inside you. It’s always been there. I can see it.” “Just take me with you, please.” “I can’t.” “Please, papa.” “I can’t. I can’t hold my son dead in my arms, I thought I could, but I can’t.” “You said you would never leave me.” “I know, I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here, you can still talk to me, you can talk to me and I’ll talk to you, you’ll see.” Okay, sorry about that.
Steven Frye: No apologies necessary, you know. I’ve had that response a number of times myself, especially the first time that I read it. It’s a moment that anyone who loves anyone, whether it is a child or whoever, is going to be affected by that moment. And I think that for all of my discussion of these philosophical themes, I think the point to be made there is that those themes don’t mean anything to us, or don’t mean as much to us until we live a life, until we encounter other human beings, then all these metaphysical and epistemological questions become real in a very intimate way. And I think that’s McCarthy’s purpose. He doesn’t see philosophy as an obtuse thing for long bearded men. He sees it as a thing that 65-year-old, third grade educated women from Missouri experience when they’re talking to their grandson. That’s what it means to be human. We ask these questions, we can’t help it. And we have these kinds of experiences. Right, so, yeah that’s a very human moment. No apologies necessary.
Brett McKay: No, yeah. You’re the best guy. That’s the part that just, ’cause I just went home. That’s what I call my son, it’s my little guy. So what it is about The Road? I read this probably once a year, every time I read it, I ball at that part, I started crying, I feel depressed, but at the same time, I feel really hopeful after I finish it. What do you think is going on there, what do you think McCarthy’s ultimate message is with this book?
Steven Frye: Well, I think that you’re feeling depressed, I think for reasons that are in some sense common to everyone, and that is that McCarthy creates a world that very well could come into being, and it could come into being because we’re struck by a meteor. It could come into being because we don’t take care of the world ourselves, we don’t know what caused the cataclysm, but it’s a potentiality that is there, and that makes us sad, that makes us depressed. But what’s hopeful, I think in it, and why I consider it tremendously, well not tremendously hopeful book, but a hopeful book, there’s a kind of circumscribed hope, is that we all carry the fire, we all care for one another, we all are capable of committing to one another, we’re all capable of going on, even when it absolutely makes no sense to in this particular situation. McCarthy himself said, what he wants us to take away from this novel is that we should be grateful for what we have. And I think you might feel positive when you read that book because you probably almost immediately look around at the things that you have and you say. “Thank whatever. Maybe God, maybe circumstance, but I’m grateful.”
Brett McKay: It’s a gratitude that’s not abstract, it’s a very visceral gratitude. And I think, again, it goes back to McCarthy’s materialist, I guess, framework that he might have.
Steven Frye: Sure, sure. Yeah, absolutely. That’s his point, is to take ideas that articulated by philosophers remain abstract and to put them into play in human lives.
Brett McKay: Well, Steve, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for listening to me blubber like a baby.
Steven Frye: It’s okay. [laughter]
Brett McKay: But where can people go to learn more about the book and your work, or just what your work in general?
Steven Frye: My work in general. Well, I have a website, stevenfrye.org, with a V, not to be confused with the British comedian. So I invite folks to visit that, where most of what I’ve done in book-link form is there. I have a couple of other books on McCarthy, edited collections. One is the Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy, the other is Cormac McCarthy in context. Again, both by Cambridge University Press. I also edited the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American West, and recently I’ve also published a novel called Dogwood Crossing. It’s a frontier novel and a family saga set in 1798, just before the Louisiana Purchase. It’s about a family that travels from North Carolina to Missouri and all that that entails. Kirkus Reviews called it, “Engaging, melancholy and chilling.” So if that appeals to folks, I encourage them to give it a look.
Brett McKay: If you like McCarthy, then you’ll like Dogwood Crossing. Well, Steve, this has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Steven Frye: Thank you very much, Brett, I appreciate it.
Brett McKay:My guest today was Steven Frye. He’s the author of several books about the works of Cormac McCarthy, including Understanding Cormac McCarthy. He’s also got a novel out, Dogwood Crossing, all available on Amazon.com, check that out. Also, you learn more information about his work at his website, stevenfrye.org, and check out our show notes at aom.is/theroad where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
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