Book Review: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

I barely know where to begin with this one.

I picked up “The Road” because I’m currently waiting for reader comments on my own post-apocalyptic novel, THE SOWING, and I wanted to take advantage of the downtime to research the classic dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories – the ones that my own work will inevitably draw from and be compared to. I picked up “The Road” because I’ve always wanted to read McCarthy’s work and it was the first one on our shelf. I picked up “The Road” because Viggo Mortensen is hot and I figured this way I could finally justify watching the movie.

I got more than I bargained for.

This book is a killer, in multiple senses. First, in the sense that it’s amazing. Second, in the sense that it kills your will to live. Third, in the sense that (in the story) it quite literally kills everything but for a few lone struggling human souls who dare to continue to live in a vision of Earth where everything else is dead.

The Road is the story of a father and his son crossing from one deadened side of the world to the other, traversing from North to South as the weather turns cold, searching for warmer weather so they can survive yet another desolate, bleak, hopeless year. They must hide from other humans; in the wake of such complete devastation, many humans have turned to cannibalism to survive. The father and his son – neither of whom are ever named – cling to each other alone out of everything, as everything else is gone. They struggle variously to find shelter, stay out of the snow and wind and ash, to feed themselves on abandoned, buried caches of canned goods, and to frighten away the would-be predators – other humans.

The most interesting theme in the book for me was the generational divide between the man and his son, who I’d guess to be between seven and ten years old, based on his language and the way his father addresses him. The father remembers life before the apocalypse. He dreams of it and by those dreams he knows he’s given up on this life. His son, by contrast, knows nothing but the ashen world. His dreams are dark and misshapen and his father tells him never to dream of things that are golden and beautiful – once that happens, his father says, you will have given up, and you can never give up. But the child asks questions about that past world, about crows and fish and Mars and what people were like before they turned. As the father struggles to describe what they see, and how the world used to be, McCarthy explores themes of hope in a hopeless world, innocence in a guilty land, and faith where God is dead. In a kind of Oedpial progression, the son represents the present world, the father the past, and they are occasionally unable to overcome these stark differences despite the love they have for each other.

This book dramatically affected the way I view post-apocalyptic stories. In a way, an apocalypse presents a grand promise: By sweeping away the old world in fires and chaos, humanity is allowed a second chance, a chance to rebirth and get it right this time. But McCarthy’s vision, which takes apocalypse at its literal meaning – total destruction – destroys that promise. There is no hope of rebirth. There is only the barest hope of survival. What is lost may never return.

I’m going to stop here and simply share a few of my favorite quotes from the story, in the hopes that you’ll fall for McCarthy’s sparse but haunting language in the same way I did, and by that be convinced to read the book. (If, of course, you haven’t already. I realize I’m a little late on the bandwagon here.)

In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. (3)

A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it a phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body. (49)

…he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them. (63)

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entries. 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. (75)

Where men can’t live gods fare no better. You’ll see.  […] When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. (145-146)

Do you think your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground. (165)

The slow surf crawled and seethed in the dark and he thought about his life but there was no life to think about. (200)

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. […] On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (241)

According to my rating system (as outlined here) I’m giving this book 5/5 stars. You can find this majesty here.

Have you read The Road? Did you like it? What else have you read of Cormac McCarthy’s – and what did you think?

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