The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) Vintage (2007) 241 pp
In anticipation of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, I thought it might be nice to look a few past winners (by the way, don’t miss out on the opportunity to win a $75 gift certificate for books from KevinfromCanada by picking this year’s Pulitzer).
I first read The Road shortly after it came out and shortly after my first son was born. It struck me so profoundly that on the day the Pulitzer Prize was announced I was in such a state of anxiety that one would have thought I had written the book. Honestly, I don’t care who wins the Pulitzer, but that year I wanted it to win. It won, I think, against the odds (it had <warning: potentially alienating bias> already been nabbed by Oprah). I know that some of the reason this book touched me so much was because I was (I still am) very touched and overcome by my relationship with my son (sons now). It’s something I never expected and cannot explain. Yet somehow, in a bleak — some say depressing — post-apocalyptic novel, McCarthy communicated a father-son relationship incredibly well. No doubt McCarthy’s relationship with his recently born son informed his writing. This review might seem heavy on that perspective, so I’m interested in how others responded to this book.
In the first sentence, McCarthy shows the father-son relationship:
When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.
That was not sentimental. That was not sentimental. It’s what I still do every night. And I’m not living on the side of a road in the cold. I also like this opener because with such conciseness we get a sense for the repetitious passage of time. The verb tense shows that this is not one particular night but rather any number of nights, perhaps every night, for a while now.
The world is gray, and ash falls in the place of snow. Something awful has happened — what, we’re never told, and it doesn’t matter because that’s not the point. We have few details, but we know that it happened shortly after the son was born, so this son knows no other world. The father and son have been travelling because the father knows they could not survive another winter where they were. So they set off south across the United States and apparently into Mexico, looking for the sea, using the road, hoping to make it to a warmer climate.
The father sees little hope in the world. He has lost faith. Though they are travelling to a warmer climate, he has no idea what they will find there, if anything, and he knows they could die in any number of ways during their course. However, he maintains a pretense for the son, who is trusting and good natured. His son’s demeanor is dangerous, actually, since the son often wants to help those they meet on the road. The father would sooner have nothing to do with others; he’s seen what could happen. I found the father’s pretenses to be particularly touching and insightful. Despite his own lack of hope, he wants his son to have hope. Somehow, this expresses a deep, desperate faith in humanity that the father can’t help but cling too for his son’s sake — it would be too painful otherwise.
That the father has lost hope and faith is completely understandable, however. Though not nearly as violent as McCarthy’s magnum opus Blood Meridian (I haven’t yet managed to get through Blood Meridian, in fact, because of the violence, though I found it brilliant), The Road is still a violent book. And as in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, the violence is sudden and McCarthy is almost as disinterested and descriptive as a detailed crime report, not romanticizing violence by any means, but not shying away from a matter-of-fact description, say, <warning: violent image> of a beheaded infant roasting on a spit. It is this world the father sees all around him, and it is difficult for him to reconcile the ugliness of this world with the beauty he sees in his son. How can the two coexist?
And what is the point? Why seek to perpetuate existence in such a world? The father knows that the son’s fate is potentially going to be worse than death. That’s why he carries a pistol with two bullets, one for his son and one for him should they be captured by the marauding cannibals. If brought to that point, could he do it?
I think McCarthy’s prose style, which I admire greatly, found its best substance here. Always laconic, always complex while seeming simple, here the form fits its function: it mimics existence in an intense but mundane thousand mile walk on a road. The book is broken up into many small sections, each running for half a page to a few pages at most. Again, I think this form mimics the tension they feel and what must have been a fairly laconic, bare essentials existence.
Yet in all of this simpleness, there is a layer of complexity and linguistic virtuosity. Though he most often uses blunt Anglo-Saxon words (which, again, I find fitting in this book), he’s the type of writer you should read to study for the verbal section of the GRE. Here are a few: granitic, collet, chifforobe, discalced, macadam, woad, tang (of a shovel), bolus, knurled, isocline, patteran). McCarthy also knows how to use ordinary words in new, but obvious ways. James Wood said McCarthy was almost Shakespearean in his capacity to use old words in new ways. For example, when using a pair of binoculars, the father “glasses” the land (could be new just to me). And in the next paragraph, sands are coagulate and a fire is feral.
They stood on the far shore of a river and called to him. Tattered gods slouching in their rags across the waste. Trekking the dried floor of a mineral sea where it lay cracked and broken like a fallen plate. Paths of feral fire in the coagulate sands. The figures faded in the distance. He woke and lay in the dark.
I also like the above passage because it shows the almost pre-civilization view of the world and the gods. There are several eerie places where one gets the sense that this is a ravaged world ruled by gods more like ghosts, haunting but almost not there. This paragraph also contains another of McCarthy’s references to a W.B. Yeats poem. Assuming, as I’m sure he does, McCarthy knows Yeats’s philosophies — what all the gyres mean — and used some of it in structuring this book, it is a fascinatingly ambiguous venture into hope and despair.