The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

Bitter cold nights, no light.  Dim, gray days.  A land filled with drifting ash, ash gray.  Dead and broken trees.  A world with all the color bled out of it.  Silence.

Where are we?  A volcano crater?  One of the high deserts of South America, dry and lonely?  The aftermath of a forest fire?  No.  This is somewhere in North America, post-apocalypse.  There are gas stations, billboards, road works, even houses and cars.  But all are rusted, burned, rotten, abandoned, ruined.  Slowly, painfully, we wander through a surreal landscape with a man and his son, searching for life.  And yet, not life, because the man, at least, does not expect to find any that is of any value.

They have to follow the road.  They have nothing else.  They don’t expect much of it, and they often have to lie in wait beside it, above it, not altogether trusting it.  The road is not security – sometimes it is dangerous – but it is all they have.  They are scavengers on the rotted face of the earth.

Generally, one either loves or hates the after-the-cataclysm story.  At best, it is uncompromising, pared-down, even brutal, laying bare the darkest and most fundamental human needs and desires.  At worst, it can be sentimental, slow-moving and repetitive.

One can never accuse Mr. McCarthy (the author of the very dark “No Country for Old Men”) of sentimentality.  But yes, this novel slows sometimes almost to a halt, then picks itself up and struggles on.  The same habits and routines are repeated over and over; but that is what survival is.  Make sure you get a fire going, find food, keep warm, protect yourselves from unknown dangers.  Mr. McCarthy could not write this story any other way.  And his writing pierces the heart.

The emotions are sharp, and very real; but the two characters suppress them and are at times almost mute.  The language is stark and simple; their conversations are short, sparing, sometimes monosyllabic.  There are no long discussions of their fate; instead, the man reads to the boy in the evenings occasionally, more as a comfort than anything else, before their fitful sleep.  His son’s utterances are poignant.  When he asks questions – and they are difficult, painful, unavoidable questions – the man responds almost mechanically, bluntly, but always seeking to reassure.

And the man has vivid and beautiful memory-dreams of family – of “the perfect day of his childhood” pottering around a lake in a boat with his uncle, of his wife walking across a lawn towards him.  Yet, he does not trust his dreams:  “What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.”  That world no longer exists, but it has its own reality, like a kind of parallel universe.  Then the man awakes, coughing, and his endless search begins again.

The reader soon knows that, without his son, the man would have given up long ago.  But we are compelled to read on, hoping that the two will find the place (the sea coast) they are heading for, that they will soon find food, that they will be able just to carry on.

When the boy asks his father what is the bravest thing he has ever done, he says, “Getting up this morning.”

It is hard to find the spiritual, the tender – the love – in the ravaged, dark world described in such fine detail.  And yet McCarthy’s triumph in this book is that it is there.  There is very little weeping, sobbing, screaming.  But the boy remembers that he has to “carry the fire.”

The fire that burns inside every man.

Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933, the third of six children.  Named Charles after his father, a lawyer, he changed his name to that of an Irish king, Cormac.  His family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where McCarthy attended Catholic High School and then studied liberal arts at the University of Tennessee, with a four-year break when he joined the U.S. Air Force from 1953-57.  He published two stories for the student literary magazine at Tennessee, and won the Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing in 1959 and 1960.   Modern reviewers often compare McCarthy to William Faulkner; he dislikes a lot of punctuation, uses simple sentences, and is not fond of authors who “do not deal with issues of life and death.”  He wrote his first novel, “The Orchard Keeper,” while working as an auto mechanic in Chicago.  Before it was published in 1965 he won a traveling fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and sailed for Ireland on an ocean liner.  He met his second wife on board, got married in England, toured southern Europe and ended up on the Spanish island of Ibiza, which was something of an artists’ colony at the time.  In 1967 McCarthy and his wife returned to Tennessee; his second novel, “Outer Dark,” was published the following year.  In 1969 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing and set up home in a barn nearLouisville, which he renovated entirely himself.  “Child of God,” based on actual historical events, was published in 1973 to mixed reviews.  He also wrote the screenplay for a PBS film, “The Gardener’s Son,” which was later published, followed by other screenplays and plays.  His fourth novel, “Suttree,” appeared in 1979.  Living on a series of grants, McCarthy published his first western novel, “Blood Meridian,” based again on actual events, in 1985.  “All the Pretty Horses,” the first in his Border Trilogy, came out in 1992 and the book won a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award.  His next book, “No Country for Old Men,” (2005) was adapted into a film directed by the Coen Brothers, which won four Academy Awards.  “The Road” was published in 2006 and also made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen.  The novel received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.  McCarthy married his third wife in 1998, and they live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He is very private, and gave his first ever television interview on the Oprah show in 2007.

Scene from the film "The Road"
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in “The Road.”

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  1. Emma, I am one of those who really disliked “The Road”. There are few books that I have had such a strong, immediate dislike for, selling my copy to the 2nd-hand bookstore as soon as I finished it, knowing I would never read it again or recommend it to anyone. Even now I am still a bit surprised at my reaction to it. Undoubtedly it is a well-written book. Some of the narrative and descriptions are extremely evocative. But I found it unrelentingly depressing. I found it interesting that as I read it, I kept thinking…this reminds me of something; what does this remind me of? And eventually I realized that it reminded me of Beckett’s “Endgame” and “Waiting for Godot”; I love Beckett, whose outlook can be very depressing, but is woven through with humour. “The Road” was entirely humourless. Maybe I just read it at a bad time!

    • Oh dear. Yes, there is absolutely no humor in it, you are right. The film was the same, although I did love Viggo Mortensen’s performance – but hated the unnecessary bit of horror that they felt compelled to add to it. Unremittingly grim, it’s true! But so well written. I had not thought of the similarity to Beckett… Certainly you need a certain amount of strength to read it..

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