The Road

The Times of London recently named Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the book of the decade. I was telling my students this evening that it was the one novel I would recommend to everyone I know. So it seems appropriate to reprint my review (originally posted on my Other Blog on April 10, 2007)

This book is agonizingly beautiful, tough, horrifying, and entirely remarkable. Few books have held me with the same almost painful fascination; I couldn’t bear to read some of it, but couldn’t bear to stop reading.

Two characters, known only as “The Man” and “The Boy” traverse an unimaginably blighted landscape, eking out a fragile existence in a world made entirely horrific after some nameless apocalypse. They are travelling “south” from where to where we never know. They are starving, sickly and always fearful; their journey is filled with unbearable tension. They are like field mice constantly in fear of larger predators; they know that if they are caught by the bands of “bloodcult” that scour the road the boy will be raped and both will be killed and eaten. Their world is wrapped up completely in one another, and it is in the achingly tender relationship between the two that this novel finds its transcendent grace.

In the relationship, and in McCarthy’s crystal pure prose. I found his style, the sentence fragments and deliberate misspellings, took a little getting used to, but once I got into the rhythm the cadences cut to the soul and haunted my dreams. He is a master of the “show, not tell” and can say in two words or three what other less powerful and assured writers would take a page.

Ssh. Got to keep quiet now.
I’m so scared.
I know. Ssh.

Any criticism seems niggardly, and I don’t hesitate to call this work a masterpiece, but the only slightly jarring note for me was the role – or non role – of the mother. She appears briefly for the birth of the child as the end of the world begins, then we learn that she has committed suicide in despair, leaving the boy in the care of his father. It was an unnecessary and almost throwaway detail and perhaps seemed a little misogynist in spirit, but I’m prepared to admit that my feminist sensibilities could be a mite oversensitive.

There are scenes in this novel that I will never forget: the man cutting his son’s hair, this simple act becoming almost a sacrament in its tenderness and beauty; acts of barbarity, told in simple, matter of fact details that somehow make the horror more unsparing. The images of ash, billowing and rustling, settling everywhere. A dog that barks once. And the man cajoling, comforting, simply loving his son to the core of his being.

The son believes that he and his father are among the “good guys” because they are “carrying the fire.” In its simplicity, passion and transcendent beauty, this novel carries the fire.

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