Cormac McCarthy’s Pultizer Prize winning novel, “The Road,” made a huge impression on me, not solely because of when I chose to read it. I already knew McCarthy’s writing from his brutal post-modern Westerns, so I was hardly expecting a light read. However, five years ago, as I settled in with it on the freezing train platform to San Francisco those winter mornings after learning my wife was carrying our first son, I didn’t expect this commute reading to speak so powerfully to my expecting heart. Surprisingly so, since it is a relentless, apocalyptic book about a nameless father and son struggling down a road in a dying world to avoid starvation, cannibals and rape gangs. Bleak yes but, in retrospect, the perfect manual for new fathers.
I had neither the time nor the stomach for the motivational pablum Doctors Phil, Spock or Chopra were spooning out to men. Instead, I found strange encouragement dosing myself with McCarthy’s austere writing. It wastes no time with the inconsequential, or even proper punctuation. He once told a New York Times interviewer good writers only “deal with issues of life and death.” As I awaited the birth of my first child, pondering such matters came naturally. Then as now, anything less lacks basic honesty about the moral challenge of seeing a new life into the world.
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.
The economy of that passage distills the challenge of the book, and the job. As a sad majority of fathers on our planet know all too well, the world is a place that will feed on our children. Little by little, we sacrifice compassion to be willing to do whatever it takes to keep that from happening. Paradoxically, we must also “keep the fire burning,” maintaining enough character to equip the child with the discernment needed to avoid a fall into utilitarian exploitation or brutality. That is the struggle coursing through this book. Though the father is concerned about the mechanics of survival, he is equally concerned about the content of his son’s character. He trains the boy to keep out of sight, to see the doom that hides behind every stranger. Yet he both marvels at and fears his son’s natural instinct toward compassion. Against his father’s wishes, and knowing all too well they won’t eat for a day, the son shares a can of peaches with a blind old man. Or later, when the father forces a thief to give back their entire store of supplies and demands the clothes off his back to ensure the boy lasts through the winter, the horrified son pleads to give the stranger back a share of what he needs to survive. This capacity, his son’s need to create connection and good, is a thing the father wants to preserve at all costs and yet, ironically, it is the very thing he fears will cost the boy his life once he is gone.
The boy’s ability to give depends on his father’s willingness to destroy and be destroyed for him. Conversely, that fierce protective spirit in the father is built around the same core of self-giving love. It is the very thing he sees growing in his boy, a fire that would certainly be snuffed out were he not there to beat down every threat to its survival. It is no spoiler to reveal that the father lives and dies to equip his son for life without him. The real climax is not the death of the central character, but rather the boy’s first meeting with a stranger once left on his own. Will he find an ally to be trusted or a predator to be feared, avoided or even killed? Is the spirit the late father preserved in his son an asset or a deadly liability?
If you let it, “The Road” is a book that hollows out a space inside for that question to do its work. It pits two natures against each other in a steel cage from which it seems only one can emerge alive.
Fear or trust?
Guarding or giving?
Solitude or solidarity?
Limited good or sufficiency?
Protective love or self-giving?
Doom or compassion?
Which is the road to life?
McCarthy poses a simple solution to the paradox: the two roads are one and the same. It is the words of John’s Gospel writ large: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (or those whom one loves). Despite Oprah’s endorsement, “The Road” isn’t some coming of age, “if you love somebody set them free” feel good movie of the week. It is elemental parenting seen through the simple truth most fathers try not to tell themselves: I will be dead for much, if not most, of my child’s life, and this is no world in which to leave them behind. Deal with it.
It is hard enough for grown men to do that, even with books like “The Road.” How can we possibly hope to equip our children to do the same? In a recent Culture column for The Atlantic, Wired magazine’s Adam Rogers wrote about the importance of cartoons and comic book super-heroes in his own effort to fan the fire of his son’s character:
I am trying to build a good human being here, someone who will make the world better for his presence. Because I don’t know any other way to do it, that means I’m building a little geek…. I give my son comics and cartoons and episodes of Thunderbirds because I want him to understand right and wrong, and why it’s important to fight the dark side of the Force. The mantras spoken in this corner of pop culture are immature, but they have power: With great power comes great responsibility. Truth, justice, and the American Way. The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. No evil shall escape my sight.
…I hope he turns out to be a geek, but more than that, I want him to wish he was a superhero. No matter what he ends up as in real life, I want him to have a secret identity that always fights for justice. And I don’t know any better way to imbue him with those powers and abilities than comic books.
This too struck a chord with me. Though many choose the stories of faith to help seed the character of children, for many that isn’t a resource or is even a dysfunctional one. Even those, like me, trying to instill a tradition and practice need imaginative context to help it take root. So I enjoyed discovering that my son and I bond through the same cartoon Rogers shares with his son: Batman – The Brave and the Bold. Like the old Silver Age comic series of the same name, it pairs Batman each week with a different supporting character from the DC Comics universe for offbeat, tongue-in-cheek adventures. Having just had a very similar conversation to Rogers’ with my own son (minus the tears), I was more than a little anxious to learn that the following week’s guest stars would be the Doom Patrol.
Completely unknown outside of fan circles, Doom Patrol is one of the more avant-garde products of early 1960s comic books, whose cult following has refused to let them die. Literally. Created by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani, they were conceived as a hero team that ran counter to most comic book archetypes of the time: broken, dysfunctional individuals whose bizarre powers were the result of disfiguring accidents that left them social outcasts. All wallowing in self-pity, frequently fighting amongst themselves, they are manipulated into becoming reluctant super-heroes as a redemptive PR stunt by their “Chief,” a brilliant paraplegic research scientist. Even more iconoclastic was the demise of the franchise in 1968. After a five-year run, when the original series was canceled, Drake and Premiani took the unprecedented step of killing the entire team in their final issue, daring the readers to write the publisher and demand their return. The response of Doom Patrol’s creators to declining readership and editorial apathy was to have the team’s nemesis ensnare them in the ultimate no-win situation. Trapped and televised live from a booby-trapped island off the coast of Maine (anticipating reality TV by a good three decades?), they could either choose to be blown to smithereens or to save their own lives at the expense of 14 fishermen and their families in nearby Codsville. Being heroes, they of course chose self-sacrifice.
This sensational departure is perhaps the greatest legacy of Doom Patrol’s obscurity. Never before had an entire team of comic book super-heroes been murdered on-page, literally embracing doom in an act of self-giving compassion for complete strangers. To many critics, Doom Patrol #121 signals the end of the age of pop culture innocence, when the four-color whimsy of the comics from the fifties and sixties gave way to the jaded street-level realism of the 1970s. It is what ensured the Doom Patrol a place in the hearts of fans (who did indeed see the series resurrected four more times) and, amazingly, it is the story Cartoon Network chose to tell for their animated Batman cameo!
Sure, it played up the goofiness, offbeat characters and deadpan humor the audience has come to expect from the show. By involving Batman (who wasn’t in the original 1968 version), it even kept in-the-know viewers like me guessing until the very end whether or not they would ultimately pull their punches. I found myself in the awkward teaching moment of cheering with my son when Batman actually disarmed the bombs from his restraints on the villain’s ship… only to find out moments later there was a back-up detonator that blew up the island anyway. We watched quietly and contemplated the various reactions of the characters as the episode wound down: the happiness and gratitude of the spared fishing village who renamed the town in honor of their saviors, the shock and solidarity of the watching crowds in Times Square and, ultimately, Batman’s pensive silhouette against a sunset.
“He’s sad,” said my son, “because he misses his friends.”
“That’s right,” I answered. “He wanted to save them.”
“They wanted to help those fishermen.”
“That’s right. That’s why they didn’t leave the island. They knew they would be hurt, but they didn’t want the fishermen to be hurt instead, so they decided to stay.”
And our weekend went on as usual, seemingly no harm done. Given how many times he has survived the death of Mufasa in the Lion King, or the abduction of Dumbo’s mother I trusted this would leave no permanent scars. Still, even I wonder what he retains from stories like this. I want to build in him a context for compassion. I want to teach him what I know from faith, but that I fail to embody: that the self is not a thing to be worshipped, but rather a thing to be given. Yet most days, I can’t escape my own mindset of limited good. Time, budget, information, autonomy, sleep, patience, space, understanding, quiet… I just never seem to have enough. Sadly it is family, friends and coworkers who bear the brunt of that. I can only hope that the hero’s story serves as a more effective model than I can myself.
Fast forward a week, and my wife and I were walking around Stanford University with the boys during a little anniversary staycation in nearby Palo Alto. On our way back to the hotel from Memorial Church, we passed by one of the many great art installations scattered around campus, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. Stanford happens to have one of the largest collections of Rodin bronzes anywhere in the U.S., installed prominently around the campus rather than being hoarded in the museum. The burghers are an assembly of larger-than-life figures clustered near one another, bound an in tatters, in various postures of anguish and indecision. Naturally, my son ran right up among them, grabbing oversized hands and studying the faces.
“What are they doing, Daddy?”
“Well, they are trying to decide what to do,” I replied. “How do you think they feel?”
“I don’t know.”
“How does someone feel when they put their head in their hands like this,” I asked, aping the nearest figure.
“Sad,” he said without missing a beat. “Why are they sad?”
And before I knew it, there we were, back on the Road.
You see, the city of Calais, France commissioned this piece in the 19th Century to commemorate a 14th Century siege by the King of England. According to legend, he offered to spare the town if its leading citizens agreed to present themselves at the gates naked, with nooses around their necks, to be hanged.When ten of the city’s wealthiest men did so, expecting to be killed, the city and their lives were spared thanks to the intercession of the Queen. Or so the story goes. This sculpture controversially commemorated not the victory of the siege, but the moment of their decision at the city’s lowest point. Naturally I told the kid-friendly version: a “bad king” captured their city and said he wouldn’t hurt the good people inside if these men gave themselves up instead to be carried away. He listened as we walked, nodding knowingly.
“Oh,” he said matter of factly. “Like Batman’s friends.”
I smiled. At times like that I can almost feel the fire burning.
For more about this topic, visit the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford.