The Road by Cormac McCarthy
reviewed by David Gaines
Department of English and Paideia Program Director
A father and son, referred to only as “the man” and “the boy,” go on the road south by southeast through a post nuclear-winter America. Food is scarce. Roadagents roam the ravaged landscape. Evidence of atrocities abounds. It’s the end of the world as we know it and no one feels fine. At one point the man tells the boy, “It’s not dark yet.” But we know it’s getting there.
Darkness notwithstanding, the Pulitzer Prize Committee, Oprah, and novelist Michael Chabon (just to name a few admirers who I enthusiastically am joining) have come together around Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is a terrifying tale that will make a great movie (in fact, it is rumored to be in development with Viggo Mortensen as “the man”).
In a wonderful piece in The [February 15, 2007] New York Review of Books, Chabon described The Road as “a return to McCarthy’s most brilliant genre work: adventure and Gothic horror.” Much of the book’s weight is carried by a series of dreams and rightly so because this is one of those rare works that gets in our heads and changes our dream lives.
McCarthy achieves this magic through spare prose and no chapter divisions (only white space breaks up the snapshots of the journey and the shards of the past). He frequently favors sentences without verbs, just like his trees with no leaves. Many of those sentences somehow come across as sensory impressions, documentary inventory, and screenplay descriptions all at once. This time, less is indeed more as the profound lies down with the mundane, as the man and the boy—who tell themselves the story that they are “the good guys” who “carry the fire”—speculate about God, forage for canned food, and shiver under their blankets under the ashen rain.
At one point McCarthy describes “the absolute truth of the world” as “[t]he cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” And yet, in the face of all that darkness the man watches the boy run or swim and he bites his lip. “In the nights sometimes [that same man would] wake in the black and freezing waste out of softly colored worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun.”
The Road is somehow what might have happened if Philip K. Dick, the author whose story inspired “Bladerunner,” had collaborated with the musician Paul Simon on “Graceland” and the two of them had borrowed in equal doses from the vocabularies and minds of Hemingway and Faulkner. Crazy for sure. But if you’re feeling strong, I urge you to dive in. Be forewarned, however: your dreams will never be the same. Nor will the incredibly resonant word “okay.”