Cormac McCarthy: The Road

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 (2006; Pulitzer) 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—postapoalyptic 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.

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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 it.  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 (even 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.

25 thoughts on “Cormac McCarthy: The Road

  1. Rhys says:

    I am the fussiest reader you will ever meet and I would not read this book…haven’t in fact read anything by Cormac McC…he doesn’t seem to call out to me……but I am surrounded by readers here and I know C McC is very highly thought of by them ..in fact my younger son Dan (a student at Edinburgh Uni …Eng Lit and Philosophy wouldn’t you know( how is that going to earn him a living? )) referred to him as a genius !! …. and as Dan is coming home tomorrow for the Easter holidays I’ll try and remember to check out what he thought and get back to you…..always assuming that I’ll actually see him while he is here …..

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi Rhys. I don’t think McCarthy is for everyone. His books have a certain slant, for sure. He’s an excellent writer, knows how to write a good story and his style is, at the very least, interesting to read. I know some people get turned away by the violence in the books. Violence is one of his themes, so I have never seen it as gratuitous, but it’s there. Also, I’m not sure if his books are that interesting for women, who never play a large role in his stories. I would be interested in how some women responded to his books (I know several who loved this one, but I don’t know many who loved All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, or No Country for Old Men).

    Some people won’t read this because they think it is just another postapocolyptic novel (or the others because they are just another Western), and that’s, I think, the wrong perspective. His are the kind of books that while they may take place in these settings are not limited by the settings. The settings, in fact, are almost incidental.

    I look forward to Dan’s thoughts, should you remember and should you see him :) .

  3. claire says:

    Hi Trevor, seeing as you mentioned his books aren’t that interesting to women, I’d like to offer my view. True, I was put off by his other, previous books due to the violence. But The Road really spoke to me, mainly for the same reasons as it did you. The father and son relationship was the deal clincher. It was as real to me as if it were a mother and son relationship (I have three sons). Of course, it helped that the writing was amazing. I was totally blown away by this book, and possibly will venture into his other works just to experience his voice again. Probably All the Pretty Horses should be less violent than either Blood or No Country..?

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your perspective claire. I know many women who enjoyed The Road, so I didn’t mean to suggest that he’s exclusively a writer for men, only that he might interest men more.

    I’m very interested in your thoughts on All the Pretty Horses, should you read it. It is not nearly as violent, I think, as even The Road (which is not to say it isn’t violent at all, because it is).

  5. Lois says:

    I read “The Road” and felt the same feelings that you and claire felt. It was amazing. I wanted it to have a different ending, however, but that’s probably because I like all of my books and stories to have happy endings. There was a lot of violence but I think it portrayed what could actually happen in our world very well.

  6. Trevor says:

    There was a lot of violence but I think it portrayed what could actually happen in our world very well.

    Interestingly, my next review will be the less violent (at least explicitly violent) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. However, it’s incredibly sad because you see that this stuff actually doesgo on. All over the place.

  7. coatesn says:

    Trevor–I really liked your comments about McCarthy’s word choice. He works on so many levels but never sacrifices the action and intensity of his plot.

    Lois–I thought The Road did have a sort of happy ending (there are other “good guys” out there trying to keep the fire alive), but it is tinted with sadness.

    I’m also kind of interested about what people thought of the mom in this story and her role.

  8. Trevor says:

    I’m interested in thoughts about that last paragraph. I think it undercuts a lot of the happiness we could feel. And if McCarthy really is channelling Yeats . . . its ambiguous ending is more a form of endlessness.

    So, what is the last paragraph saying? Is it positive or negative?

  9. I have a personal confession about The Road — it is on the “I really must read this sometime” shelf. The book is in good company — Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, Les Miserables and The Complete Stories of Leo Tolstoy are all on the same shelf (and that is only a sample).

    My problem with McCarthy is not the violence, but the bleakness — and I suspect that here is where being a Canadian effects my response. We in the Canadian West have our bleak writers and I have read them — Sinclair Ross, Frederick Phillip Grove, Guy Vanderhaage. I did read McCarthy’s trilogy and thought it went downhill from volume one and that “bleakness” was a major reason for that. I just remembered that Blood Meridian is on that same shelf — some day when I am feeling particularly cheery and need to be let down, I’ll pull one of them off. One of the reasons that I love reviews like this one is that they keep me up to date on these books that I am avoiding reading.

  10. nathan says:

    On the last paragraph: I think it’s typical of McCarthy’s longing for the old word and its old codes (or “maps and mazes” of “a thing which could not be put back”). The boy represents that in this book, as did the Sheriff in No Country and John Grady Cole in Horses. I tend to think of McCarthy channeling Dylan (maybe Yeats, too, though I know much less about him)–a prophet condemning this new world that has lost touch with ancient, “vermiculate patterns” as bound for destruction. Maybe I read him too optimistically, but I feel the same fears as a father–which you hit on in that first passage.

    Also, Jennifer Egan wrote an excellent piece if anyone’s interested that compares McCarthy’s style and Hemingway’s here: http://www.slate.com/id/2151300/

  11. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I didn’t find it bleak; I found it absolutely beautiful. Certainly the setting for the story is bleak, but that makes the contrast of the characters and emotions much more poignant.
    I think it’s hard to portray the urgency and depth of feeling parents have. Using such a desperate setting really makes those feelings tangible. My world is fairly cushy, but as a parent I found many of the lines from the book to state exactly what I felt.
    The Road is the only McCarthy I’ve read, but I’ve always been interested in others. Bleakness and violence don’t bother me when used and written well. And I think McCarthy is fairly brilliant in his usage.

  12. Trevor says:

    On the last paragraph: I think it’s typical of McCarthy’s longing for the old word and its old codes (or “maps and mazes” of “a thing which could not be put back”). The boy represents that in this book, as did the Sheriff in No Country and John Grady Cole in Horses.

    I had never thought about comparing the child and the sheriff before. When you put it that way, the book is, in my reading, fairly hopeless. The sheriff longed for an old period, but he’s never going to get it. The past is long gone, and the new world brings with it some evil that is unfathomable even to those witnessing it.

    Interestingly, though, McCarthy has these characters in many of his books, even those set well in the past. No Country is in the 80s, Horsese in the 50s, and Blood Meridian in the 1800s (I forget which decade). I bring us Yeats because of his philosophy on the cyclical nature of history. Seems McCarthy’s characters (though I’m not sure McCarthy himself) see the transition into a new age as something frightful. McCarthy seems to suggest that the world is always frightful.

    You also bring up the allusions to an ancient world, which I saw in the “slouching gods” and even in the physical structure of the novel and the predominantly Anglosaxon language. I took that to mean that these characters were again in the midst of creating a history, or rather a new foundation for a new history. But I’m intrigued by what you bring up here, and I want to look into it more.

    Thanks Nathan!

  13. Trevor says:

    I missed on on Mrs. Berrett’s post in that last reply to Nathan. Though in that reply I tend to sound like I think the book is bleak, I also found the ending full of hope. In other words, I find the ending very ambiguous. Beautifully so.

    Incidentally, how did those of you who had read other McCarthy books approach this ending? While you can often read a book like this and just feel that the author is going to make things right in the end, you know you can’t expect that from McCarthy. He might even end the lives of the main characters with fifty pages left in which to look at other things. He completely undercuts reader expectation, and that’s one reason I find his work so compelling. He’s not one to sacrifice the progression of his ideas to the reader’s expectations.

  14. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I’m not specifically addressing the ending. I find myself still questioning whether there was a happy ending. It is a bit suspicious they waited to talk to the boy until the father was gone. Why wait until no one is protecting him? I find that suspect.
    But as I said, I don’t find it bleak but beautiful. Despite the bleak situation humanity still prevails. The point of the book isn’t the state of the world, but the relationship that still endures.
    Maybe that makes it more bleak, that something so beautiful is surrounded by so much ugliness. Which then would suggest the ending is very bleak. But still, the hope was alive in the father/son even if they no longer wanted to have it.
    Kevin-
    Trevor says to pull it out. It’s a one day read.

  15. Perhaps I overstated myself — it isn’t that the book is totally bleak, it is just that the resolution occurs in such bleak circumstances (and that is true of the McCarthy that I have read). I will definitely read the book at some point, but in fairness to both it and the author I think I need to wait until I am in the right mood. With two feet of snow in the backyard at the end of March and the poor dog looking at snowbanks that are twice her size, I think it might be a mid-summer, read it on the patio effort, if you can understand my thinking.

  16. John Self says:

    That was not sentimental. That was not sentimental.

    As no-one else has picked up (or at least commented) on this, I thought I’d say: nice!

    I too read The Road in 2006 – right at the end of the year, so it just missed being the first book I reviewed on my blog – and I gave it a notional four stars out of five, with the deduction coming from my usual feeling from McCarthy, that he sometimes overdoes it with his language (“The snow fell nor did it cease to fall” being one phrase that I recall).

    However I do wonder now if I should reread it, now that I have a son of my own, to see if the added emotional heft pushes it higher still.

  17. Trevor says:

    Hey, I’m glad you caught that, John! I figured most people would think it was just a typo or me being strange (well, maybe it is me being strange, but not without purpose).

    I would definitely be interested in your views now that you have a son. I agree with you about the occasional “huh?” that McCarthy’s language raises, and you picked a good quote to show that; but with this book I was definitely able to let that go because of how clearly it spoke to me most of the time. I wonder if it would be similar for you now.

    By the way, cute son!

  18. Jonathan says:

    “McCarthy … sometimes overdoes it with his language”

    Oh yes, my goodness. The first time I picked The Road up, I put it down after a page. McCarthy’s prose can be overwrought, pompous and offputting. But thankfully I later had another go and thought it was brilliant. (More detailed comments here).

    It’s absolutely about a father-son relationship. I don’t have a son but I can’t read it any other way. Michael Chabon makes the point perfectly in a terrific review (though I think it’s subscription-only access now). The Road isn’t sci-fi, it’s horror: a chillingly real evocation of a parent’s worst fears.

  19. Ryan says:

    What I just can’t get through, and it frustrates me, because so many do it, is when an author is just so pompous. Its almost like they want to stump the reader as to what they mean.
    They want to use to many metaphors, and simile’s. Reading, is thinking enough. You don’t want to have to have a thesaurus and dictionary to refer to as you get through a book.
    Shakespeare wrote that way, because that is the way everyone talked at the time.
    We do not talk like that. A father, in a barren post-apocalyptic world, would not talk like that.
    Just tell the tale, and let us read it.
    Does my comment make me look stupid? Maybe. I can assure you I am not.
    I just saw the movie, and I am a little confused as to why they were being followed by that family. What did that mean? Why won’t he have to worry anymore? Was his father a bad guy?

  20. Trevor says:

    Hi Ryan, I haven’t seen the movie and cannot tell you what anything in it means. Maybe someone here can speak to that.

    As for the rest of your comment, I’m certainly sympathetic. One of my most hated books reviewed on this blog is Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. Ugh! What a book! I also don’t like it when an author is so pleased with metaphors that they cloud out the rest of the work, either because the metaphors don’t fit, because there are too many of them, or because they are so complex as to obfuscate even the simplest statements.

    I do disagree with such a general negative disposition, though. Reading is not, in many cases, thinking enough. It might involve more thinking than, say, watching a soap opera, but maybe not. If an author is making things difficult just to make it difficult, then I’m with you. But I don’t feel that is the case all the time, and probably would disagree with you on many books.

    I also disagree that Shakespeare wrote the way he did because people talked like that back then. If that was the case, what a brilliant society that must have been! Sure, some of what Shakespeare wrote even the drunkards in the audience groping women would understand more easily than we do today when reading it line by line. But Shakespeare used wordplay and metaphor all over the place (and invented words), so if someone understood them then it was because they liked being forced to think harder than what is required by just sitting down and watching a play.

    You should rest assured that despite our disagreements, and my subsequent preachiness, this was all for the sake of discussion and not because I think lowly of you.

  21. Lee Monks says:

    Ryan, art is sometimes (the best of it, often, not always) an attempt at reaching a truth beyond the obvious equations. There is no obligation to adhere stringently with ‘how things are’, and there is no need to feel angered by something beyond comprehension or understanding. Instead of merely asking, ‘Why was that family following them?’ etc, why not ponder such things, without fear of being wrong or ‘stupid’, and make up your own mind? There is never going to be a collective answer, as you, and anyone else, will have to meet the work halfway and bring everything you have to the table to come to your own, worthy conclusion.

  22. By Myself says:

    I honestly just seen the ending as a dream. Mccarthy places so much emphasis about dreams throughout the whole book, then all of a sudden the boy is saved out of nowhere. I couldn’t help but feel like they were both dieing, and the whole thing was their final dream.

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