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The Road

Cormac McCarthy's epic about a father and son who must survive in a post-apocalyptic world.

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The Road -- It may end in tears

  • Sep 30, 2010
Rating:
+5
Pros: Plot, control, authentic father, young son discussions.

Cons: Nothing.

The Bottom Line: Not the McCarthy to start with for a newbie, but a good read all the same.

Edited to correct some embarrassing grammatical mistakes

Imagine after the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven (whose hearing at that point allowed him to play the piano like the master he had always been) wrote a very simple, 4 minute piece of music that even a child would be able to play. Anyone could play the notes, but only a true master of the craft could inure it with the emotion and sonority and therefore be able to make music when, in lesser hands it would only be a forgettable song.

Cormac McCarthy has been called the only true heir of Faulkner—books like Suttree and Blood Meridian have solidified that sobriquet. More recent books have moved away from a lushness of language to a terser usage. The Road, his most recent, is the starkest yet.

For 240 pages we have no true names, only one man gives a name but fully admits that it isn’t really his. A father and son are Bedouins in a new post-apocalypse whose origin is never mentioned. The narrator picks up the story of these two who are moving eastward and seaward because the father knows they will not survive another winter where they are. This new world is sparsely populated and the assumption is that everyone else is out to get you. This new world is very much like an older world—one for which there is no true history. In a time before manufacturing, man had to spend major portions of his days keeping warm and hunting for food. These activities take up the overwhelming majority of the time for the two heroes of The Road. One thread that is horrifying begins about twenty pages in and stipples irregularly throughout. There is a literary cliché that a gun in the first act always goes off in the third. Given the violence wrapped in some of the most beautiful language I’ve run across in Blood Meridian readers of McCarthy know how much violence his stories can contain. That kept my attention all the way through the novel.

The font and spacing are large so the 240 pages would normally fit a book of half that length. I should have been able to read it in a sitting; however, it took three days. I took breaks, reread passages, and took a measured pace through it so I wouldn’t miss what I believed to be buried treasures. I don’t think any of the treasures are buried, but they are there all the same. The one that struck me hardest and kept me near dread because of the potential future is the way McCarthy wrote the dialog for the son. Most writers fail when they try to capture the way children talk and how they look when they are dealing with difficult situations or concepts. Through a family tragedy, I have become a more active uncle than I might have otherwise. My nephew in question is 6 and has friends ranging from 6-9 and they seem to see me as one of them rather than an agent of their parents. The language they use is so similar to what Mr. McCarthy penned that it was eerie. At least two conversations were nearly verbatim to ones I’ve had with six year olds. This makes the story that much sadder given that the child is likely somewhere between 6 and 9. He can handle some abstract thought but not much, so he couldn’t be past 10.

I despise naturalism. I have not been able to get more than half way through any of the books by America’s naturalists. The Road can be seen as naturalistic, but what stops it from committing what I see as naturalism’s sins is that the focus isn’t on the burned out land where the only colors are gray and black, but on the relationship between father and son.

In my review of Mr. McCarthy’s previous novel No Country for Old Men , I said that for someone who wanted to get their feet wet with this sometimes difficult author it was a good book to start with. I would not say the same for The Road. The Road is meaner, and not something I would recommend for someone who hasn’t read anything by Mr. McCarthy before. It is an amazing book, just not a good starting place.

The review is over. What follows below is something that would be considered a form of blasphemy in academia—I excommunicated myself from that world so . . . do not read past this if you don’t want to know how the book ends.

I can’t help but think that The Road is the swansong. Anyone who has read Suttree will recognize where the pair wind up thirty or so pages in the book. They are in Knoxville, or what had been Knoxville before the incomplete Armageddon. The pair visits where the father lived before, the first place where the son is petrified to enter. This is the one place where there is true nostalgia.

The world had fallen apart years before, long enough before for the boy not to have known any of it. His world was always gray, black, and full of privation. The father doesn’t spend too much time ruminating on the past—just in that house and a couple of memories of the mother of the son. It feels to me that this is a last look backward for Mr. McCarthy.

McCarthy breaks the cliché. The gun in the first act does not go off in the third as it is intended. Before he dies, the father explains, cryptically, that he couldn’t do what he had promised the mother. He had one live round in the pistol and was supposed to kill the boy so he wouldn’t be left alone. I had a feeling this wouldn’t happen, but given his previous novels, there was no telling and I was trying to prepare myself for a faithless Abraham/Isaac sacrifice.

Instead the father simply dies and leaves the boy alone. However, they had been followed by ‘good guys’—and this was mentioned briefly a couple of times so their sudden appearance isn’t out of place. This religious family of 4 takes the boy in and the book ends in a way that is different from all of the other McCarthy novels I’ve finished. It finishes with hope. This is not to say that all the others end bleakly just that the hope in this one is unique.

The blasphemy I’m about to commit is driven by the last images. The father dies, the son continues but in a family unit that is completely other than what he had before. The final images indicated to me that McCarthy may now have said all he wants to say. The son surviving is the only thing in the ash-covered world that gives hope—not so much for people but for people’s art and expression.

If I read the above paragraph, instead of writing it, I would likely think it stupid, but I think the clues in the novel are too obvious to miss. The pair moves from place to place seemingly without true reason. They find a couple of places where they could wait out the winter and start moving towards the ocean in spring or summer. The obvious question is why they leave these places? Also, why are they moving east?

The easy answer for why they had to keep moving is that they didn’t have the ability to defend themselves against a hoard. But that was true no matter where they went. They gave up the comfort of a well stocked bomb shelter after just a couple of days before moving on. This makes as much sense, literarily, as Huck and Jim heading south to New Orleans instead of east to Cairo, Illinois. The Road would certainly have had less impact if they stayed there, but leaving it makes little sense except for the literary.

So the analysis has to be literary.

They leave and move east because that is where age resides. In the 70’s McCarthy moved from Knoxville to Texas. Movement from east to west in this country has always begun with hope and with an idea to newness and a rebellion against the cynicism, closeness, and age of the east. That the characters move east (we have no idea where they started, so we have no idea if south to the Gulf or west to the Pacific would have been better) seems to me to be two things. One it is a nod to age and decay that are the bread and butter of The Road. The second is the recapitulation of a career. His career began in the east. When he moved west, he set his novels in that arena. Now, after several decades, he sets another novel in the east. I think this is a goodbye.

Because McCarthy is probably the most enigmatic American writer (Pynchon is the perennial favorite, but his reclusion and the fact that his post-modern novels lack the rhetorical punch and emotional impact of McCarthy, Pynchon is his own cliché), there is no telling and there may be a revival of the eastern novels. It is just a gut reaction that The Road is the last we will hear from this writer who scratched a special scar on the face of anonymity.

Other reviews for McCarthy novels:
All the Pretty Horses
The Orchard Keeper

Recommended:
Yes

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More The Road (book) reviews
review by . March 10, 2011
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a grim novel about surviving a post apocalyptic World and the relationship between a father and son. How the World ended is never mentioned but the fact that it has and the dire situation the main characters are put in is the driving force of the book. The father throughout the story line is always encouraging his son to never lose hope and to keep the fire burning that swells inside of them. Will they be able to survive in a dead World? What will they do just to live …
review by . November 17, 2010
Whew! THE ROAD is a draining, exhausting, bleak, gut-wrenching, bleak, fast-paced, bleak novel. Did I mention it was BLEAK?     The book is 279 pages and they fly by. I think I read the book in 4 hours...I could hardly make myself put it down. I wouldn't say I "enjoyed" reading it...but it was thoroughly gripping, as spare and uncompromising a novel as you would ever want to read.     It tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world, where the sun is never seen …
review by . February 27, 2011
posted in SF Signal
I recently finished Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, a highly praised and award-winning novel that was made into a film that spent all of maybe two hours in theaters. It is also a novel that was appropriated by SF fandom as either "yet another SF novel not marketed as SF because publishers are afraid of the label" or "yet another mainstream author who just doesn't get it trying to write science fiction". My personal conclusion is - The Road is neither. Perhaps an analogy …
review by . November 18, 2010
Whew! THE ROAD is a draining, exhausting, bleak, gut-wrenching, bleak, fast-paced, bleak novel. Did I mention it was BLEAK?     The book is 279 pages and they fly by. I think I read the book in 4 hours...I could hardly make myself put it down. I wouldn't say I "enjoyed" reading it...but it was thoroughly gripping, as spare and uncompromising a novel as you would ever want to read.     It tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world, where the sun is never seen …
review by . July 04, 2010
There's something timeless and persistent about the dystopian novel.   Whether it's Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, or Zamyatin's We, stories detailing the consequences of losing all we know and fearing that what we've dreamed will never come to pass are a powerful lure for the popular imagination.  Humans are resilient creatures, and we take a special interest in tales which paint a picture of human fortitude in the face of daunting circumstances, …
review by . July 14, 2010
   A friend loaned me this book just before the movie came out.  He told me that it was gut-wrenching, but I don't think he could have prepared me for just how incredibly bleak this book really is.    Of course I read this book as fiction.  I didn't look for any kind of meaning or try to analyze it very much.  My friend is an English and Philosophy major, so I figure he got away more out of this than I did.   I read this book during the winter.  …
Quick Tip by . October 22, 2010
It will pull you through an emotional wringer, mess you up, wring you out, stomp on you, rewash and rewring ... read it. Understand it is an emotional journey that goes to beautiful extremes.
review by . July 02, 2010
This was probably one of the darkest and potentially depressing books I've ever read, yet the prose is so beautiful that it did not have that effect on me. I found some passages so absolutely beautiful, I had to re-read them several times just to savor them. The story takes place in a dark, burned, post-apocalyptic world and follows the lives of a father and son who are trying to stay alive, find food, and keep moving. Exactly how this apocalypse happened remains untold. Years afterward, the …
review by . June 20, 2010
It's hard to imagine our world devoid of sun, vibrant color, or plants of any kind. Yet The Road does conjur up these almost lifeless images and takes readers on a journey through such a landscape: gray, cold, hard, and wearying.  Life does exist, however, even in an environment as non-supportive as Cormac McCarthy has penned: a father and son.      The father and son are at the heart of this story, and their walk through a bleak, …
review by . July 06, 2010
The Road is by no means a happy book, although the companionship and support displayed between a man and young boy is heartfelt and inspiring. With the bleakest outlook on survival and no food, these two are ever running, ever hiding from other's who would steal their provisions.       At times, the simplest can of pears brings more joy to the character's lives than a large sum of money would bring to most people today. The hardships endured by a young boy and the …
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The Road is a 2006 novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of a journey taken by a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unnamed cataclysm that destroyed all civilization and, apparently, most life on earth. The novel was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006.

The Road follows an unnamed father and son journeying together toward the sea for many months across a post-apocalyptic landscape, some years after a great, unexplained cataclysm. It is revealed via flashback that the boy's mother, pregnant at the time of the disaster, committed suicide after the birth of her son because of the ultimate certainty of her and her family's death by starvation or at the hands of the roving bands of cannibalistic survivors. She preferred to reclaim some semblance of power by choosing the manner of her death. The man carries a revolver with two bullets meant for protection or suicide in a worst case scenario.

Civilization has been destroyed and it seems that all life except for a dwindling population of human beings is extinct. The sun is obscured by ash and the climate is cold: "hard enough to crack stones." Plants do not grow. As the father and son travel across the landscape, they encounter horrific scenes, including an army of roving cannibals and their catamites and slaves; an infant roasting on a spit; and a basement...

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Details

ISBN-10: 0307265439
ISBN-13: 9780307265432
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Horror, Apocalypse, Science Fiction
Publisher: Knopf, Vintage
Date Published: (September 26, 2006)
Format: Novel
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