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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I read this book in one take late at night and immediately headed downstairs to kick up the fire and drink some bourbon. I was cold, chilled emotionally, stunned, awe-struck by McCarthy’s words. I mentioned The Road to a singer/songwriter friend and all he could say was “That one put me off my feed for a few days.”

The Road by Cormac McCarthy 3
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 241 pp.
CLR [rating:5]

The Road – Through a Shattered Looking Glass Darkly

Post apocalyptic novels are a dark, bleak and often illuminating genre that are highlighted by titles that include The Day of the Triffids, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Eternity Road, On The Beach and Galapagos. J.G. Ballard carved out a large section of this wasted landscape with The Crystal World, The Drowning World, The Burning World and The Wind From Nowhere. But among all of these fine works and dozens more I’ve read, none compares, holds a candle to or rings such gloomy, bleak chords as does Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; all accomplished with an economy of words that is beautiful in its execution.

The story follows a father and son as the they wander, stagger, and grope their way through a burned over, scarred America. Little moves within this incinerated landscape that is smothered in ash driven by a cold wind. The snow is grey. Rivers run thickly clogged with ash and soot. The trees are black skeletons. The pair is heading for the Eastern coast with little hope of finding anything. Anything. Period. They have nothing save a pistol and a handful of bullets to defend themselves against the bands of ravenous ghouls who maraud the roads and heat-buckled Interstates like bizarre, merciless highwaymen. And they have the ragged clothes they’re wearing and a cart of scavenged food. And they have themselves.

I read this book in one take late at night and immediately headed downstairs to kick up the fire and drink some bourbon. I was cold, chilled emotionally, stunned, awe-struck by McCarthy’s words. I mentioned The Road to a singer/songwriter friend and all he could say was “That one put me off my feed for a few days.” Knowing the guy as I do, despite his lyrical, beautiful and often humorous music, I took the comment as high praise for McCarthy’s effort. Dark is dark and some of us have arcane addictions.

The first book I ever read by McCarthy was Blood Meridian. That one knocked me cold with the stark and brutal portrayal of the Southwest with its wicked crew of bizarrely violent Apaches, twisted thieves, derelict cowboys and assorted other human forms of depravity. The language used by McCarthy was without excess, sufficient for its purpose:

He rode back to the camp at the fore of his small column with the chief’s head hanging by its hair from his belt. The men were stringing up scalps on strips of leather whang and some of the dead lay with broad slices of hide cut from their backs to be used for the making of belts and harness. The dead Mexican McGill had been scalped and the bloody skulls were already blackening in the sun…Glanton cursed them on, taking up a lance and mounting the head upon it where it bobbed and leered like a carnival head

This is the way of it throughout the narrative and clearly Blood Meridian is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is the book like his others, like All The Pretty Horses, a book violent in parts like McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, but also like McMurtry’s novel romantic, heroic and a wide-ranging saga. Blood Meridian is not any of this. The tale is brutal to the point of barbarism, a cautionary story written with mordancy by a man who understands language. In The Road McCarthy has cut away even the scarcely visible fat in Blood Meridian, paired his language to harsh basics, to create a landscape that is so awesome in its depraved starkness, so relentless in its totally blasted horizons that he leaves the reader no room to wander, to escape the horror.

He’d tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down around a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.

Certainly an existence without hope or redemption quite similar to that of Blood Meridian Though in a highly refined fashion.

McCarthy is one of this country’s best writers authoring nine novels including Suttree, Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men. From what I can see, the country in all of his books is no place for old men or those lacking a mad sense of courage. He’s won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award. His author photo depicts an individual of stern background who’s perhaps seen more than he wanted. The ever-popular eternity stare is in evidence.

But there seems to be a slight glimmer of hope or optimism shining faintly in the wind-blown grimness. All along the journey to the coast, despite the horrors and deprivations the father and son encounter, the two happen upon caches of abundance – canned meats, fruits, vegetables, clean water in a cistern, decent clothing. This may not seem like much, but the finds shimmer like gold in the stygian atmosphere. It is remarkable that McCarthy pulls this off, a testament to his skill, while never ceasing in his relentless portrayal of hopelessness.

An example is near the end (and this is giving nothing away) when the boy is taken in by a family living near the road along the oceanfront after the death of his father:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

I’ve read The Road twice now and marvel at how McCarthy ties all of his story together. The book could easily be read from back to front and around again. I look forward to reading this another time, perhaps when I’m in the middle of a canoe trip on the Yellowstone. Timeless is timeless. McCarthy knows this truth well.

John Holt and his wife, photographer Ginny Holt, are currently finishing up a pair of related books - "Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real-Time" (to be published by AK Press in February 2009) and "Searching For Native Color - Fly Fishing for Cutthroat Trout." John's work has appeared in publications that include "Men's Journal," "Fly Fisherman," "Fly Rod and Reel," "The Angling Report," "American Angler," "The Denver Post," "Audubon," "Briarpatch," "," "Travel and Leisure," "Art of Angling Journal," "E - The Environmental Magazine," "Field and Stream," "Outside," "Rolling Stone," "Gray's Sporting Journal" and "American Cowboy." Chesapeake Bay Bridge



  1. Jordan McCullough

    February 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I read the book for a outside reading project, and as a sophomore in high school, one might think I would be able to fully grasp the intellectual aspects of the book. They would be wrong. McCarthy is a brilliant writer, and his book kept me on my toes constantly. I read the book in 2 days in 5 hour spans. I found my self angry when they were robbed, and extremely happy when they were lucky. McCarthy fully entrapped me in this book, and I will read it many times.

  2. Dan

    December 5, 2011 at 1:14 am

    This book is ridiculously overrated.

    Yes, it is very well written, yet is without any substance.

    Simply put, a polished turd.

    I was so excited to read it in for a class, but I hated every boring moment. Yes, it was incredibly well written, but there is absolutely nothing below the surface. Completely unoriginal. It seems as though McCarthy used eloquence and a pretentious rhetoric to overcome writers block.
    The themes were incredibly simple.
    Survival in the face of hopelessness? Who would have thought that humans would try and survive. Its called life derp.
    Father-Son protection: Same as any parent-child relationship . Soooo deep McCarthy, I guess having kids so late in life makes these simplistic parental themes seem amazing.
    Humans are essentially animanls without society: I think I read “Lord of the Flies” in middle school. Also, no kidding huh. Who knew humans act like animals in an animal scenario?

    McCarthy: “Idea for a book. Post-nuclear holocaust. Father must protect his son and survive.”
    Publisher: “Then what?”
    McCarthy: “No that’s it.”
    Publisher: “I saw ‘Road Warrior’ last week and thought it was sick. Through in some tribal renegade survivors.”

    Best argument against my stance: It won the Pulitzer Prize and many people give it acclaim. Do you know how many people like Justin Bieber?

    This is no book, just a really long poem.

    Do be struck by its dark sadness is like the first time a pop-oriented teenage girl hears a Dashboard Confessional song. “Its…so…sad…OMG!”

  3. Benregis

    August 4, 2011 at 7:50 am

    I’m sort of on the fence on this one. I thought it was beautifully written, loved the deconstructed grammar, thought the story was moving, but…..I don’t get why it’s had such brilliant reviews when so many equally good post-apocalyptic novels (surely both Triffids and Chrysalids are post-apocalyptic, Robert Silverman?) have been damned purely because of being in the fantasy genre.

    As a post-apocalyptic novel there were gaping holes in the narrative – no plants, no animals (surely rats, that most resourceful and omniverous of animals would survive?), yet humans still slog on. Plants have been dead for years, but there are windfall apples. To start with I could forgive the inconsistencies because of the beauty of the writing, but to me they became more irritating as the novel progressed. A beautiful, bleak novel – yes, but too inconsistent to merit all the praise that’s been heaped on it.

  4. Lunar Camel

    March 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Good literature? I just finished Anna Karenina, Hard Times, four Nabakov novels and even Baudolino by Umberto far this year. I was told to read this trash for an english lit class..It is rubbish compared to everything else I’ve read so far this year. To all the people who want to say it is unique and those who say it is horrible are not in tune with something, just laugh. This book is not great, it makes me feel like it’s a step back from what I’ve been reading, which it is. Read the classics and the greats first, and then tell me The Road is anything but horrible.

  5. Sean

    March 8, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I don’t want to be the grammar/sentence structure police, but it is somewhat important to include them in writing. It is a set standard so people know what you are trying to say. It seems he is trying to say that he is an artist that isn’t a slave to the norm. This and the total abandonment of quotations, is incredibly annoying and just makes him seem like a lazy, smug, and pompous snob.

  6. Helen

    February 23, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    48 hours after the earthquake in Christchurch New Zealand and “The Road” has even more impact. The style of writing captivated and terrified me!I found the characters of the boy and the father very convincing, despite the lack of names. Their humanity moved me deeply just as other people’s cruelty horrified me. I normally would never choose to read a book like this which is so dark,but it is certainly one of the most powerfully written books I’ve read.

  7. Mark

    February 20, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Just finished the audio version of the book. The narrator did a masterful job of telling the story. The issues people talk about here about punctuation were nonexistent in that adaptation. The book rendered me speechless. Not the best book I have ever read, but certainly up there. I can recommend this book to anyone. The use of dialog in this story so completely sets the scene…the sparseness of the prose describes the bleakness of a dead world so completely that I felt that the wife took the right way out. Makes you think about what’s really important.

  8. Meebo

    November 28, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    I read the Kindle version. At first, I thought this story had been victimized by a Kindle transcriber (anyone that has read enough typo-plagued Kindle versions of stories knows what I’m talking about), but this was not the case. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel was actually written this way. Everyone is different, but I found it distracting.

    I take exception with reviewers who say McCarthy used this technique for effect in the telling of this story. All of his books are written this way. He is not using nonstandard punctuation, run on sentences, and sentence fragments to more effectively paint a bleaker post-apocalyptic picture. He feels it is the best way to write, period. Personally, I think the only people more pretentious than Grammar Nazis are people who think they are such brilliant writers that basic grammar is for everyone else.

    As for the story itself, what was so extraordinary in the way the father cared for his son, or in what they did to survive? It was all pretty instinctual, and any parent knows that doing whatever you can so your child survives is pretty much as natural as breathing. Quite honestly, I couldn’t imagine treating any child differently under these circumstances, much less my own child, so the story did not come across to me as a shining example of love or heroism, either. The Man tried to keep himself and his son alive. Is this really some sort of novel concept?

    I was moved at certain points of the story, too, but not as much as those who were moved to tears.. If you want a bleak and moving post-apocalyptic story, try Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” or any of Stephen King’s forays into the genre, like “The Stand” or even “Cell.” Even George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” might be worth a look, if this one had you sobbing.

  9. Reader

    October 18, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    I just finished this book for an AP English IV paper in high school. I didn’t think I would like it, but I was mistaken. It is such a good book. Easy to read but with deep meaning. I finished it a few days ago and have not stopped thinking about it sense.

    I am trying to synthesize my thoughts on the existentialism or nihilism of the novel. I feel that the Man is stuck to choose between God and suicide, which is essentially the result of a nihilistic view. I’m having a hard time getting my thoughts together on whether it’s nihilism, existentialism, or just plain religion/lack there of. So… I don’t know what your thoughts are. I feel that a deep understanding of this would greatly contribute to the meaning of the novel.

    Anywho… I’m going back to work on the paper. I don’t know if any of y’all had considered those views. But if you didn’t find much meaning in the book, I would suggest looking into the presence of nihilism and existentialism to provide more depth and understanding.

  10. Tess

    October 6, 2010 at 4:15 am

    I just don’t understand why they’re going to the coast. Who’s going to be there? They should’ve just stayed at the bunker and died happy instead of starving and sad.

  11. Jade

    August 21, 2010 at 3:47 am

    I didn’t really appreciate the plot and conflict especially the first part. I was like, is this the whole thing?
    but the way Cormac puts and combines words,well….wow
    I’m so impressed. The meaning is so heart warming and piercing through the soul.

  12. Nick

    August 15, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    An utterly harrowing read, that has left me shaken. The author distills life to its essence.

    I was forced to keep going in to check on my 2 year old son as he slept – to look at his little face, & face the depth of my commitment to him – could I ever hope to reach the stature of the father in McCarthy’s novel?

    This book is biblical in both its depth & the sparseness of its prose – spirling layers of meaning & symbolism there for the reader to take.

    McCarthy is a giant.

  13. Peter

    August 12, 2010 at 1:12 am

    I’d like to make a point which I have not seen raised here yet.

    BTW I was also very moved by the book and agree with an earlier post that it is one of the books of the decade.

    The Road’s deconstructive grammar is a reflection of the decline of civilisation and its rules, but McCarthy’s brutal, yet eloquent, prose is also a deliberate contrast to the language which the two main characters use. The man and his son speak in simple, repetitive sentences with very few words. It highlights the ultimate reversal of language, where vocabulary shrinks as words which no longer have any relevance (such as green, aeroplane or money) disappear. McCarthy hints at this with the man’s inability to describe the world before to his son.

    To those who posted negatively about the absence of plot and names – this is also deliberate by McCarthy. In a post apocalyptic world things lose their meaning, including people and plans. The man and the boy are anonymous entities in a meaningless world, who still move forward because it is the survival instinct of a species. The man’s inability to resolve his own decisions for keeping them both alive attests to the struggle between the mind’s logic (why live any longer) and the body’s need to survive. Intensely powerful stuff.

    The only downside to this book is the Hollywood ending. McCarthy sets up the world as almost empty and peopled with ‘bad guys’ yet within three days of his father’s death the boy is miraculously found by a perfect family unit of father/son/boy/girl to replace his existing family. I would have preferred if the boy continued on his own into the dark of an uncertain future, like Paul in D.H Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’. It would have suited the unknown bleakness of the story. We have no history to the characters or events (a nice touch by McCarthy – once again he disposes of things which have no relevance to their lives – only the struggle of right now has any importance) and it would be right to have no concept of the boy’s future.

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