I remember enjoying Life Is Beautiful while in college: the quirky Roberto Benigni created a character I’d hope to be, and the peek into one story struck me as a poignant way to capture the tragedy of the broader genocide that was the Holcaust. At least, that’s how I remember thinking about it, and the positive memories are why I assigned my sophomores to watch it fifteen years later when I was out of class for some meetings.
They didn’t finish the film with the sub and I had to show the last 30 or 40 minutes or so when I returned. It did not go well for me. Within five minutes of hitting play my stomach was tied. When we finally reached the scene where little Joshua hides in the junction box and his father is taken away and shot, I left the room, afraid I’d throw up. What was different from my college experience? Becoming a father had made the movie unwatchable.
I wonder, as I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with my students, if they can comprehend this fatherly perspective, or are they as clueless to the gut-level connection as I was the first time I watched Life Is Beautiful? The first time I read The Road I withheld any positive acclaim until the end, muttering to McCarthy with every page, “Do not do this. If you do this, I will hate this book like no other.” I never had to utter to myself what “this” was any more than McCarthy’s narrator has to explain what is on the man’s mind: “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?” (29). I knew with the first mention of “it” what McCarthy meant. The pit in my stomach, the one that drops into place the moment I read a sentence of The Road, told me what “it” was.
The pit, or whatever it is that leaves me on the edge of sickness and threatens to push me off it, arises particularly from the juxtaposition of the father’s knowing watchfulness and the boy’s sweet peacefulness, which we see immediately in the novel. For example, with the pistol out and ready, the man sees the same sweet sleeping idiosyncrasies any parent sees from their child: “He just sat watching the boy sleep. He’d pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets” (5). The boy’s sleep prevents him from seeing what consumes his father: “He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day” (5). And when the boy wakes the two elements crash:
The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.
I’m right here.
I know. (5)
The tender boy sees his father and greets him, a moment in which any father would want to bask and respond in reciprocal tenderness–that is to say, it’s a moment where I would, so I assume any father would as well–but instead he answers by assuring his son that he is watching, that he is here, because that is what consumes him and how he must express his love. It is sad that it must be this way, but it works, for the boy’s response acknowledges his understanding and trust in his father. He knows his father is there, he doesn’t have to be told.
What a pang such tension brings me as a father. I know what it is to watch over my sleeping son, his face relaxed, his body vulnerable. Yet the joy of my looking at him arises from the contrast of his sleeping self with the buoyant energy that fills our home when he’s awake. Like the father in The Road, I see him as my charge, my “warrant,” but to me this is a responsibility within my grasp. It’s a duty of character development and moral guidance, not a task of raw survival and violent protection. In my gut I know no extremes exist to my willingness to protect him, but I need not imagine such circumstances, let alone plan for them or expect them.
This book is a long metal pole McCarthy has probed inside me, and with it he is pressing the nerve endings of my fatherly spirit. That nerve is central to what it means, to what it feels, to be a father, and even when aware of the novel’s ending, I find myself muttering, “Don’t press me too hard, McCarthy. If you rupture that nerve, I’ll never forgive you.”