Review: The Road must taken


theroadcoverartAs soon as I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I wanted to call a “time out” from life and put everything on pause so I could do nothing but read, read, read this unrelenting book.

McCarthy pens a powerful tale of devotion and love set in a post-apocalyptic world of despair and hopelessness, as stripped down and bare as McCarthy’s spare, elegiac prose. I mean, he’s writing bare-bones, devoid of commas and apostrophes and, frequently, even complete sentences. But oh, does he capture images and emotions! It’s almost stream-of-despondent-consciousness from characters who wish they were unconscious.

The story follows a father and young son as they make their way across the barren landscape toward the sea. They’re ostensibly traveling there in the hope of finding better living conditions, but this is, after all, a world without hope.
Look, for instance, at the world through the father’s eyes as he wakes up one morning on their journey. “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment of the world,” McCarthy writes. “The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

And the world only gets more bleak from there.

This is an ash-covered world scraped clean by some man-made catastrophe that annihilated all life. The few humans left a decade later are mostly lone animals, hunted by roving bands of cannibalistic thugs; others hole up in bunker-like communes. No travelers are safe. Anywhere.

And yet father and son move on, finally driven from the relatively safety of their home in the north by unknown forces. The novel begins some time after they’ve begun their migration. McCarthy immediately puts readers on the road with the two of them, and with no spectacle or theatrics, begins to ratchet up the tension. It doesn’t take long for a reader’s nerves to get as edgy as father’s and son’s. And with each page, each section, the novel’s iron fist slowly keeps squeezing the reader’s heart.

The plot never lets up, not once, never rests–after all, the characters themselves must be ever-moving, ever-vigilant–but The Road proves that the best characterization comes through action. This is a love story between father and son. The pain and fear and love they share is fearfully palpable and true.

The Road is one of those rare masterpieces that made me read it. I suspect it will continue to haunt me for a long, long time.

(I originally wrote this review in October 2006, when the novel first came out, and I just finished my fifth re-read. Since its release, The Road has since won accolades ranging from the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction to selection in the Oprah Book Club. I thought it worthwhile to dig out my original review in light of the new movie adaptation now playing in theaters. See the movie, but absolutely read the book.)

8 replies »

  1. I have mixed feelings about this book, Chris. On the one hand, I agree it’s very well done. On the other, as a once-avid science fiction reader, I find nothing the least bit new in it, and I wonder why he wrote it. I love McCarthy. I think he’s a truly great writer, but this book … well … it just didn’t seem up to some of his other offerings. I believe his masterpiece is Blood Meridian. The Road just doesn’t stack up all that well. At least in my opinion. It’s kind of like comparing Absalom, Absalom to, say, As I Lay Dying. The first book is a masterpiece. The second is extraordinarily good and far more accessible than the first, but just not quite in the same league.

    But, it’s all subjective. The Road is definitely worth the read, and I’m glad you reviewed it. Thanks.

  2. JSO wrote:

    On the other, as a once-avid science fiction reader, I find nothing the least bit new in it

    Having read The Road, I would amend JSO’s quote to read: “as a once-avid JG Ballard reader, I find nothing the least bit new in it.” Also, just not a McCarthy (or Faulkner, for that matter) fan. Still, looking forward to seeing the movie.

  3. I think it’s a mistake to look at the book as a sci-fi piece, though. It’s a father/son story set in extreme conditions. Having said that, the end-of-the-world scenario as McCarthy paints it IS new to most mainstream audiences, so although it might not be new to well-read sci-fi readers, it’s new to almost everyone else. I think he wisely steers clear of most post-apocalypse, “Mad Max” stuff, too.

  4. Russ, I’m not a McCarthy fan either, in the same way that I’m not a Hemingway or Faulkner fan. I can appreciate the merits of their best work and enjoy some of it, but I usually end up with the “Okay, there’s another classic off the list” feeling (in the case of Hemingway, there’s also the “jeez, that guy was an asshole” reaction). I get it, I just don’t love it. And I might have mentioned my love for Ballard, so here’s the punchline: this is the only McCarthy novel that’s ever affected me profoundly, to the point of NOT wanting to read it again any time soon. The same way, on a smaller scale, I feel about the film “Damage” or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake…

    And no, there’s nothing startlingly original – but are there any very, very unique stories left untold? Why retell any of them? Why should anyone ever write another take on any of those same old saws? That’s a Lit 101 question – I imagine he wrote it because he had to. Whether we need to read it, now… that’s different.

    I guess I like this book because it feels less important-writerly, more personal. Smaller. Faint praise, maybe, and I have no urge to see the film. But I understand where Chris is coming from on this one.

  5. Ann, Damage — one of my favorite movies! Read the book a couple of years ago, too. The Road could be called Damaged Beyond Repair.

  6. Anonymous: I don’t think it’s a mistake at all to see this as a science fiction piece. Most really good science fiction is simply a thought experiment. The idea is to set up conditions that would exist only in a world that doesn’t exist, drop one’s characters into it, then see how they react. The premise of “The Road” has been done many times, which is what puzzles me. If one is going to examine human nature by altering conditions, why not choose a different set of conditions that haven’t been done a number of times? Yes, it’s a story about a man and his son and their relationship under extreme conditions, but I didn’t find anything new in the story. It’s extremely well done. No question. And maybe that’s reason enough to revisit it.

    Perhaps you were thinking of science fiction as being like the Star Wars stories? The space opera is certainly a branch of the genre, but the important work can be found in books like “The Left Hand of Darkness,” “Brave New World,” or even “The Time Machine,” which was an early foray into science fiction with an important examination of human nature.

    • Of course, the genius of cyberpunks – like Gibson, especially – is that they dropped characters into a world that DOES exist. Sorta. Technologically, no, but culturally yes….

  7. Holy crap. Okay, Russ, if you haven’t read Oryx and Crake, you’ve GOT to. It’s everything you might have been looking for in The Road and infinitely more… and come to think of it, Sam, it fits quite nicely into that cyberpunk idea of cultural familiarity/technological novelty.