McCarthy: The Road

February 19, 2009

The Road
Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2005)
241 p. First reading.

Reading The Road is like taking a long walk in which each step is a little more painful, each turn in the road adds another knot to the stomach, and each crest of a hill makes it harder to breathe.  By the end, I was begging for relief, for some respite from the relentless march.

We never learn why the world died.  The man remembers a red glow on the horizon.  That was some years ago — maybe five or eight.  In the meantime everything has gone to hell.  The government has collapsed, the economy is gone.  Nothing grows, and there are apparently no animals still living — no birds, rodents, or insects.  The sky is slate grey, raining ash, and one cannot see the sun, much less the stars.  Gangs roam the mostly deserted countryside, and slavery, infanticide, and cannibalism have returned.

Through this desolation the man and his son tread their wary way, heading south. We don’t know where they have come from; they don’t know where they are going.  They are looking for help, for some remnant of civilization, and some milk of human kindness.  They pick their way through town and village, raiding deserted homes for tinned food and supplies, hoping to scavenge before someone else arrives with the same purpose.  The landscape is wasted and dead, and they have no real grounds for hope.  Dreams of the vanished world overshadow the man’s mind as he sleeps, though the details are falling into forgetfulness.  The only light for their path is the love of the man and his son for one another.  The boy remembers goodness better than his father.  He is sustained by the idea that they are “carrying the fire”, and must not let the fire die.

Under such circumstances the material conditions of life are of overwhelming concern.  Each battery, each drop of fuel, each tin of beans is of great importance.  McCarthy’s prose shows this.  His descriptions of physical actions and material objects are precise and focused to an uncommon degree.

The novel’s vision is bleak, but not desparing or misanthropic.  You will find no reassurances here about the basic goodness of man, but neither is it nihilistic.  The world, even when blasted and laid waste, presents a real moral challenge, and though many fail the test, the good continues to beckon, brooding over the bent world.

This is the first of McCarthy’s novels that I have read.  His prose style is new to me.  His disregard for punctuational conventions could have been an irritating gimmick, but in this case the primitivism suits the subdued, desolate tone of the book.  When the world has fallen apart, one doesn’t worry overmuch about quotation marks.  What is most impressive is that using very simple means — short, declarative sentences and sparse dialogue — he is able to create a strong sense of atmosphere, drama, and character. It is an excellent book.

15 Responses to “McCarthy: The Road”

  1. Janet Says:

    He never uses quotation marks as far as I can see. And after reading No Country for Old Men, which is the first of his books I had read, I picked up Plainsong by Kent Haruf, and guess what? No quotation marks. But I’m used to it by now. It’s easier in The Road because you usually only have two people speaking. In the other books, it can get confusing.

    Did you notice that McCarthy also fabricates a lot of compound words. I really liked that. Most of them are just right in their sentences.

    They are travelling south to find a warmer place, but it never gets any warmer, and neither does the reader. It was the lack of color that was so difficult for me. You notice that even in the scenes where there is blood, I don’t think he mentions the color, which surely would have been very powerful in this grey landscape.

    I sound like I didn’t like the book–well, I’m not sure that like is the word. I thought it was a very good book, though, and he writes beautifully, although I’m not sure beautiful is the word. I think it’s the best of the five of his that I’ve read.

    AMDG, Janet

  2. Janet Says:

    That scene in the basement (one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read) is a masterstroke, because it robs you of the ability to ever feel safe again (for the characters). Even when they find places of comparative safety and comfort, you know that that is out there lurking, waiting to intrude at any moment. You really feel the fear that the father feels for his son.


  3. Janet Says:

    Now you should read Dandelion Wine. It’s a great binder-up of all those Road-y wounds.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I am ashamed to say that I did not notice him making up new words. Unless you mean words like “didnt” and “wasnt”, but I don’t think you do.

    Clearly, you are better read in the annals of American literature than I am. I read that McCarthy’s fondness for that old typewriter that doesn’t have the quotation mark key is long-standing. I can imagine it not suiting certain stories. To me it makes the dialogue seem muted and flat-toned. That’s perfectly appropriate in this story, but I could see it getting in the way of a happy, emphatic tale. Maybe he steers clear of those.

    Excellent point about the colour! Everything is grey, isn’t it? A film version of the book has been made, and from the photographs it appears that they have captured that aspect of it quite well. They filmed it in Pennsylvania. That can’t be good for tourism. “Come to Pennsylvania: The Post-Apocalyptic State”.

    You are right about that basement scene. The encounter with the would-be abductor was another case. They press home that danger, of a terribly brutal and inhumane kind, lurks just out of sight. I was also troubled by the boy whom the boy (our “the boy”) saw through the window in one of the towns. Who was he? Why was he there?

    Dandelion Wine is the remedy, is it? Hand me that bottle.

  5. Janet Says:

    Maybe he didn’t coin words in this one. I’d have to look at it again.

    Clearly, you are better read in the annals of American literature than I am. That’s funny because the reason that I read my first McCarthy book and then the Haruf was because I had told a friend that I thought that Americans just didn’t write as well as the English. All my favorite writers are English (well, except for Percy and Berry and O’Connor). So, he suggested I read something by McCarthy or Haruf.


  6. cburrell Says:

    If I were to read another novel by McCarthy, which one would you recommend?

  7. cburrell Says:

    Oh, and I found a copy of Dandelion Wine today at a second-hand book shop. It looks good.

  8. Janet Says:

    I have only read No Country for Old Men and The Border Trilogy, which starts with All the Pretty Horses. I think I would recommend that you read All the Pretty Horses first. It’s pretty fatalistic, but it’s a compelling story and there are some passages in the trilogy that are exquisitely beautiful–at least I hope you think so. At the moment I can’t remember one, but then I road for four hours today with the sun in my eyes and I KNOW that when I was reading the book, there were beautiful passages.

    I would think that anyone who had ever been a 12 year old boy would especially like Dandelion Wine and, besides, if you found it like that, you must be supposed to read it.


  9. Nick Milne Says:

    Janet offers good advice.

    McCarthy’s best novel is typically said to be Blood Meridian, and I think there’s a great deal of justice to the claim. It’s sort of a symphony of doom, though, so be warned about that.

  10. Janet Says:

    “I road for four hours” I wish I could say that I did that on purpose. This is why you shouldn’t type in your sleep.

    AMDG, Janet

  11. cburrell Says:

    I wasn’t going to say anything, Janet. 8)

    Thanks for that suggestion too, Nick. I’d heard Blood Meridian praised, but then when I looked at the outline of the story my eyebrows went up, in a skeptical sort of way. I’m surprised Tarantino hasn’t turned it into a film.

  12. Nick Milne Says:

    He’d probably have to pry the rights to it from McCarthy’s cold, dead hands. Some things would just be undignified, and Tarantino’s Blood Meridian would be a champion in that field.

  13. cburrell Says:

    What? Not a Tarantino fan? I don’t object, but I had thought film buffs more inclined than not to look on his work with admiration.

  14. Nick Milne Says:

    Oh, I wasn’t very clear there. I certainly enjoy his work in general, but he’s too irreverant for Blood Meridian. It offers no possibility of the sort of stylized hipster bloodbaths at which he so excels, and I suspect he could only ever adapt the book in a revisionist sense, thus robbing it of much (all) of its power.

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