BookBrowse Reviews The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy X
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 256 pages
    Mar 2007, 304 pages

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Mad Max meets Samuel Beckett in Cormac McCarthy's vision of ravaged America

From the book jacket: A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

Comment: Cormac McCarthy takes his usual despairing style to new heights in The Road - a poetic, bleak work that some see as a parable and others see as a retelling of The Book of Revelations. Published in hardcover last September, it received extremely positive reviews overall, with negative comments here and there, and garnered a place on a number of bestseller lists.

As you probably know, it's back in the news this week because Oprah Winfrey recently anointed it as her latest book club choice, causing the publisher to pull forward the paperback publishing date by six months and put in a rush order for almost a million paperback copies to meet anticipated demand.

As a prophetic vision of the end times, McCarthy's interpretation would leave the fire and brimstone prophets of old quaking in their sandals; and it knocks the socks off the LaHaye/Jenkins version presented in their multiple volume Left Behind series (ostensibly based on Revelations).

As a parable or allegory, The Road offers rich veins of interpretation, precisely because it lacks a clear message, leaving it up to the reader to interpret it as they see fit. One rather moving interpretation was found buried in the reader reviews at Amazon, written by a father whose grown son suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression for nearly eight years:

"The metaphor employed by Cormac McCarthy left me weeping from the realization that someone else truly understood what it means to be a father who does not give up the struggle to deliver his son to a better place. I pushed that cart laden with hope over many mountains and shielded my son from those who would prey upon him. I have felt the anguish, the fear, the sense of helplessness and fatigue from the long struggle. For me The Road was a blessed release for pent up emotions. This novel is a metaphor for what is good and right and the struggles it takes to make it so. My son survived and came to me after he had read The Road and said, "Dad, thank you for pushing the cart for so long over such rocky ground-you can rest now".

The plot of the novel, such as it is, is simple - a journey by a man and his son, both unnamed. As father and son journey they pass thousands of unburied and mummified corpses stuck in the tar on the roads that melted around them, they see babies roasted on spits, and humans corralled together, presumably awaiting consumption. It's not clear where they're walking from or to but they're somewhere in America, possibly Appalachia. There doesn't seem to be any reason for their journey other than that moving gives a sense of purpose, possibly even hope. They walk through a "barren, silent, godless" wasteland, the result of an unnamed catastrophe about which we only know that the clocks stopped at 1:17 (presumably a reference to Revelations 1:17) when a "long shear of light and then a series of low concussions" burned the world, leaving everything covered in clouds of gray ash.

Some interpret the boy as representing salvation - the naive lone voice of compassion crying out in the wilderness, wanting to help those he passes. His father is a harder, more pragmatic, man intent only on saving his son's life ("My job is to take care of you .... I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you."); but what is he saving him for one has to ask? The boy's mother took her own life shortly after the catastrophe struck, and one can't help wondering whether she made the right choice rather than becoming one of "the walking dead in a horror film".

With such meaningful subject matter it seems rather churlish to mention something as mundane as McCarthy's use of grammar; but it must be said that, as in earlier books, his use of the English language does lack the basic elements which some of us find helpful when reading - quotation marks are missing in action, capitals are sporadic and sentence fragments abound.

In most reviewers' eyes McCarthy makes up for his idiosyncratic use of grammar, firstly because of his use of language which at times reads like prose poetry and secondly, because he's one of the doyens of American literature and doesn't have to abide by the same old boring rules as the rest of us!

In short, this is a shoo-in for book clubs because some will love it, others will likely hate it, but all will have an opinion!

This review is from the April 5, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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