The Road: Cormac McCarthy’s Guide for Helicopter Parents

The film adaptation of The Road opens this weekend, perfect timing for post-Thanksgiving guilt and much easier than a long workout. I’ve never quite been able to take McCarthy seriously, which probably has much to do with an overabundance of road trips: the cowboy, sacred steer of middle class radio listeners was a common form of torture employed by my parents, who’d flip immediately to the Prairie Home Companion, or those utterly unfunny Cowboy Poets.

And then there’s McCarthy’s blatant misogyny. In the Road it comes through with the “Woman,” i.e. the bad mother, who kills herself – a sensible decision in this case – but before doing so spends two pages calling herself a whore: “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot. . Because I am done with my whorish heart and I have been for a long time.”

The Road’s sonorous prose and kiddy pool depth has also been a choice target in the genre wars: bald proof that literary fiction is at a loss for ideas as it rifles through the sci-fi candy bag, scarfing down undeserved critical acclaim. Once you realize there aren’t any actual ideas behind the chest beating, Bunsen burner cannibalism, and miraculous morels, you should rush out to read Canticle for Leibowitz or Parable of the Sower.

Ah, but there are! Maybe.

The popularity of McCarthy’s novel, you see, is not merely another sign that literary taste is a matter of conformity. Forget about climate change, meteor fears, or annihilation via nukes or Oprah, because that’s not what the book is about. It’s not about an archetypal father really either, but rather an archetypal helicopter parent: the “man,” who still finds the time and strength to sensitively minister to his son’s every physical and psychological need, despite starvation, cannibals, and an utter lack of hope. Just look at the guy, slavishly hovering over his child, lovingly scrounging for that Pepsi, and hacking up his lungs in bad weather rather than spending a few extra days in that food-stocked bomb shelter. The son — like two 18-year-old boys I saw being massaged by their mother at the library while they studied — does nary a lick of work in this bleak landscape.

Then there’s the pop psychology: “What you put in your head is there forever.” McCarthy plops this truism throughout the book, hoping it will magically gain weight, while the father, on top of the physical privation, still manages to shield his child from horror after horror, like some superhuman V-chip. If he really wanted that kid to survive, he might want to own up to the frakked state of the world.

Leave it to those as naïve and jittery as a helicopter parents, who live in gated communities free from the terrors of working poor to believe it. Only those who trust the mantras of test scores and college resumes, who think that a prestigious degree means that one is educated would find depth in this misplaced nugget of therapy culture.

It all falls apart when one confronts the pesky reality outside the book, wherein millions of children in less cushy areas of the world live under not quite as awful conditions, but pretty damn close. Those children do not enjoy the luxury of such assiduous parenting in the form of covered eyes and stories about “carrying the fire.”  Much like kids in those generations muckraked by Dickens, they live and toil away in hellish conditions, without the luxury of someone worrying about what they put into their precious psyches.

There forever? I doubt it. And if so, so what? I much prefer a line from faux suburbanite Donald Draper — once again, TV trumps what passes for high brow fiction — “It will amaze you how much it didn’t happen.”

I guess it’s not surprising that scads of terrified parents who’ve chosen to battle rather than to engage with their communities would find The Road appealing. The trials of The Road’s starved, embattled superdad provide the perfect ennobling reflection of their own daily squabbles with teachers, principals, and admissions officers, the piece mealing of academic resumes for their infantilized progeny. For as bleak as it gets, the book nevertheless  provides the delusion that even in such horrifying conditions, they might still micromanage our children’s lives, while in the real world protecting  them from the glaringly obvious fact that our progress on social and economic equality, not to mention that pesky climate, are in dire need of a reality check.

McCarthy’s book certainly isn’t one, but it’s popularity is just a sign that many have already given up trying. When I hear the term helicopter parent, the words overprotective and assertive rarely come to mind. Remember that helicopters after all, are a privileged means of escape.

Just watch any pre-Road apocalypse film. You’ll see.

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