Book Review: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy


Yes, new(-ish) fiction, lest you all think I’m a Classics Guy. I’ve been wanting to read Cormac McCarthy for a while, having noticed his novel Blood Meridian on many Best Novels Of All Time No Go-Backs lists. Nothing like a book with the word “blood” on a best-of list – it could be written by Margaret Laurence and I’d still want to read it. Good for Cormac that he didn’t decide to call it “The Orchid Parasol” or something more ubiquitously “literary”. In any case, I have still to read Blood Meridian. However, I did get The Road, McCarthy’s latest book, for my birthday in November, so I figured it would be a good introduction to his work.

I remember, a while back, seeing a hardcover edition sitting rather dejectedly in Balfour Books (one of the best used bookstores in Toronto). I asked the person at the counter: “Is that new?”. “Yes.” he said. I was surprised, knowing then that McCarthy was a respected author, or at least his previous work was respected. “It’s really depressing.” he said, answering whether he’d read it. And you know, looking at the cover (which, yes, one should not necessarily judge a book by), which is all black with bleak lettering, I thought to myself: he’s probably right.

Flash-forward to 2007: a lady on television whose name starts with “O” picks it for her influential “reading club”. Suddenly, The Road, depressing or not, is receiving the sort of attention that poor little hardcover at Balfour couldn’t have imagined. Next thing you know, there’s a major film being released, based on McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. In other words, his exposure went from zero (or “obscure”, in the mainstream sense) to sixty (recognized by-name in the mainstream, though I doubt he’s signing autographs for people stopping him on the street). While not trying to suggest the end result of McCarthy’s career is that I got The Road as a birthday present, it is a rather convenient way for me to spin this into a review.

The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world: something happened a few years back which levelled civilization. What is left are abandoned buildings, ash-strewn landscapes, corpses, and a handful of survivors. The book concerns a man and his young son (whose names we never know) pushing a grocery cart with all of their belongings down a road, heading south to where the father hopes there is warmth, food, and perhaps life. They find sustenance wherever it is available, in whatever form, but more often than not push-on while fighting starvation. The father has binoculars, which he uses to scout the road ahead: for others. In this environment, as he tells his son, there are good guys and bad guys. For them, he carries a pistol. With only a couple of bullets remaining, the gun is intended to ward off scavengers, but the father comes to realise that, if it looks like they can’t survive, it may be necessary to use it on themselves.

Aside from their single-minded determination to keep moving south, above everything else is the father’s need to protect and provide for his son. There is a tragic necessity on every page of The Road, for the father to teach his son right from wrong, good from bad…and in turn, despite the savage necessities that happen upon them, his son is more often the one who inspires his conscience. When the father sleeps, we see his dreams – glimpses of a life before catastrophe. When he lies awake, watching over his son, he meditates on the brutal choices that lie ahead for them.

There are two profound fears expressed in The Road: first and primary is the spectre of other survivors. People roam about, often in small groups, killing others. The father and son spend much of their time hiding in the snowy woods, building fires out of plain sight to avoid being discovered by survivors. Looking for their clothing. For food. On this last point, there are passages in the book that are about as unsettling as one will ever read. The second fear, a more existential one, is one of separation and the question of how someone who spent most of their life in a settled world can teach a child born in the aftermath of its destruction, with no sense of what came before.

The Road may be depressing (especially if you’re reading it in the middle of winter, and listening to the new Radiohead CD), but it’s hard to put down. The father’s inner struggles are captivating, and the terror of not knowing what lies ahead for them is equally so. I cannot remember reading a book so quickly. McCarthy’s prose is stark. You realise that there are no apostrophes in words like don’t and can’t. Most of the book consists of clear, taught sentences that are not decorated with elaboration. Yet, there are moments of deep, poetic reflection in the narrative which, from a philosophical standpoint, convey a humanity extracted from the world as it has become. The Road manages to be both chilling, horrific, and touching, sometimes within the space of a single page. To that extent, it stands as a remarkable piece of fiction.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (ISBN: 978-0307265432) is available at a fine independent bookstore (used or new) near you, or online at any number of vendors.

Note: his previously-mentioned novel, Blood Meridian, is set to become a film, directed by Ridley Scott. Let me tell you, I can’t imagine anyone doing as good a job as the Cohen brothers did for No Country For Old Men. If you haven’t seen it, please do.

[3:11pm I’ve re-edited this for some factual mistakes, clarified some opinions, and added 5% more humour, all due to faulty memory and a lack of coffee – ed.]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.