The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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Among living American writers, Cormac McCarthy stands out. He’s a Big Name. Even those who haven’t read him often have an idea of what he represents. They’ve seen the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men, or they’ve heard about his iconoclastic approach to grammar. Years ago, I tried to read Suttree. I put it down after roughly ten pages, turned off by the style. A week or so ago, I decided to give McCarthy another shot. Shopping at Raven Used Books in Cambridge, MA, I noticed a copy of The Road. I picked it up, read a few pages, and, captivated by McCarthy’s haunting imagery, bought it.

The Road immediately sets itself apart with its minimalist style. Its two main characters are The Man and The Boy. We never learn their names. The Man is resourceful and cunning, protective and loving. The boy is fearful and cautious, generous and curious. Beyond these traits, they aren’t characterized in great detail. That they lack proper names is indicative of their archetypal nature. They stand in for fathers and sons everywhere. There’s a universality to their paternal bond which transcends circumstance.

It’s the end of the world. The ecosystem has collapsed, bands of cannibals roam the country. Unlike many post-apocalyptic stories, there isn’t really any hope for renewal. Humanity nears its final hour. Beauty and goodness have all but checked out. What remains? Mutual love between a father and son, strong enough to endure the wreckage of everything else. The tenderness with which McCarthy this portrays gives the novel, which could have been soul-numbingly bleak, an almost life-affirming quality. The selflessness of the Man’s love for his son is something special, something which can redeem the human race even as it resorts to cannibalism and terror. The Man frequently tells the Boy that they’re “Carrying the fire.” He never describes exactly what this means. The most compelling explanation is that the fire is some combination of goodness and love.

There’s a lot of dialogue in The Road, but characters rarely speak more than one sentence at a time. As is typical of McCarthy, there aren’t any quotation marks. I was struck by the recurring instances where the Man is surprised by something which his son says. At one point, the Boy utters, “Warm at last,” prompting the father to ask where he would have heard such a phrase. Later, the Boy asks what their “Long term goals” are. I’m not a father, but this strikes me as something real. As kids grow up, they pick up on the linguistic clichés of the adult world. When they utter them, it’s surprising and funny. McCarthy’s inclusion of this phenomenon adds depth and charm to the paternal relationship at the heart of his book.

The Road’s descriptions of its barren, ash-covered setting are disturbing, transporting, and unbearably haunting. I recommend that you read this in a warm, people-filled setting – a library or a café would be perfect – so that you don’t get too consumed by McCarthy’s empty, hopeless apocalyptic setting.

He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone. – from page 11 of The Road

The Road is suffused with an ominous tension. Early on, we know that the love between father and son, the book’s only source of comfort, is itself temporary. The Man often gets up in the night to go cough blood. He’s sick. He might be dying. He often contemplates his pistol, knowing that he might have to kill his son to protect him from a worse death at the hands of cannibals. That the Man’s love could take such a grim, destructive form is terrifying. We spend much of the novel hoping that it won’t happen. The Man wants to protect his son, he wants to shield him from the worst of what the world has to offer. Of course, he realizes that this desire is largely futile.

The Road is repetitive. The Man and the Boy spend most of the book traveling. They starve. They find food. They encounter a band of cannibals. They hide and/or fight. They see a house and go to search it. The Man and the Boy have a conversation, the Man reassures the Boy of something, the conversation ends in the mutual exchange of “Okay.” This repetition gives the book a poetic quality. It has choruses. This structure has certain elegance, but it doesn’t always make for the most compelling reading. Especially towards the end, I felt that McCarthy was treading over the same territory.

I would say that The Road would have been better as a novella, but the repetition does serve a thematic as well as a stylistic purpose. It gives us a feel for what life is in the book’s barren, blasted world. I was never bored, but that’s largely due to McCarthy’s writing, which often transcends his mundane plotting. Nevertheless, McCarthy could have included more variance in his story. The devices he falls back on, including searching the abandoned house and hiding from the cannibals, feel like the easy clichés of post-apocalyptic fiction.

The core of The Road is the relationship between the Man and the Boy. The strength of this relationship, the way that McCarthy juxtaposes it with the emptiness and cruelty of his world, elevates The Road to greatness. McCarthy’s prose is beautiful – it wonderfully draws out the atmosphere of a hopeless world, somehow lending aesthetic grandeur to a total wasteland. Where the book falters is its plotting. The Road’s repetition and the obviousness of its plot beats serve its minimalist style, but such a style wouldn’t have been betrayed with less reliance on predictable survival horror tropes.

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5 Responses to “The Road by Cormac McCarthy”

  1. Great book but it has been out for a while!

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