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Review: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

December 23rd, 2009

Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" has been hailed by many as the best English language fiction of the young millennium.

I just completed reading the post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his boy fighting to live on.  Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is, for lack of a better description, the most interesting book I’ve read in a while.  I’m still not really sure quite what I feel about it, but I know that I feel.

I hustled to read the book as the movie version is already out, starring Viggo Mortensen as the Man with Robert Duvall as the Old Man and Michael K. Williams as the Thief.  For those unfamiliar with MKW, he is better known as Omar Little from The Wire and is one of the best casting calls that I can recall.  Most telling, perhaps, will be the casting call on the book’s central character, the Boy, played here by Kodi Smit-McPhee.  Although the movie has been out in limited release for a while, this is a review of the book only.

The problem, of course, is that I’m having trouble figuring out how to put my thoughts on the book together.  So part of this review will be an exercise in discovery… a review that hopes to draw out the substance underlying itself.

As a whole, “The Road” has been almost universally hailed; however, it also is risky.  McCarthy utilizes a challenging theme, dangerous taboo and a staccato means of writing which all represent big gambles.  For the author of The Border Trilogy (“All the Pretty Horses”, “the Crossing”, “Cities of the Plain”) and “No Country for Old Men”, “The Road” has, thus far, been his most acclaimed work.

Click to keep on keeping on

Let’s start with a synopsis.  Rather than rehashing, myself, I turn it over to Publisher’s Weekly:

Violence, in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tour de force, has been visited worldwide in the form of a “long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” that leaves cities and forests burned, birds and fish dead and the earth shrouded in gray clouds of ash. In this landscape, an unnamed man and his young son journey down a road to get to the sea. (The man’s wife, who gave birth to the boy after calamity struck, has killed herself.) They carry blankets and scavenged food in a shopping cart, and the man is armed with a revolver loaded with his last two bullets. Beyond the ever-present possibility of starvation lies the threat of roving bands of cannibalistic thugs. The man assures the boy that the two of them are “good guys,” but from the way his father treats other stray survivors the boy sees that his father has turned into an amoral survivalist, tenuously attached to the morality of the past by his fierce love for his son. McCarthy establishes himself here as the closest thing in American literature to an Old Testament prophet, trolling the blackest registers of human emotion to create a haunting and grim novel about civilization’s slow death after the power goes out.

Under that basic rubric we’re confronted with three truly stark elements of the novel: it’s apocalypse, the loss of social norms and the grayness of language.


The apocalypse itself is not fully explained at any point.  There is a slight description of the occurrence, as remembered by the Man in a memory of the Boy’s birth: “long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”  The description sure sounds like that of nuclear armageddon, though the description is vague enough to allow for other possibilities.

Unlike here, in McCarthy's armageddon there are no streaks of light. The sky is permanently gray and the nights completely pitch black.

In my mind I imagined the world through the eyes of the not quite optimistic, but less cynical Boy, who doesn’t always see the evil in everything.  As such, I repeatedly thought while reading that maybe those cracks and rumbles were not detonations, but something equally bleak such as the eruption of the Yellowstone Super Volcano.  In my heart, however, I know that there are no good things in this world McCarthy has created.

For whatever reason, the land is uninhabitable.  Plant growth has been stunted by widespread fires and the darkening of the skies.  It is a nuclear (or super volcanic) winter with dreadful colds and a snowy ash caused by wildfires.

There are few people left and even fewer not hidden from view on the road.  Travel is slow and all are careful not to be seen.  The land has been stripped clean of all utility… with only the occasional rusted tin or jug of gasoline or water left.

The Man and the Boy travel this apocalyptic land, moving further south in an endeavor to outrun the freeze.  There is no real destination or goal or new home toward which the protagonists move.  They only travel to stay alive… as the Man says, moving for the sake of staying warm.  Even when shelter is available, the fright of being discovered and captured keeps the two on the path.

The plot appears to take place along the mid or lower Atlantic states.  The Man and the Boy move to the southeast, following the Man’s apparently rudimentary map (there is no explanation as to why the map is rudimentary and not replaced with a Rand McNally or why the man has so much trouble navigating and pinning positions along state roads that presumably have not lost their fading signage).  Eventually they find the coast, indicating a positioning at least somewhere along the eastern seaboard.

Breakdown of Society

Elsewhere, “The Road” has been compared to George Romero’s movies for their apocalyptic flair (at least the film one has been in reviews), but what “the Road” struck me as most similar to was a combination of the concept behind the “Left Behind” series and the world of Mad Max.

In the tales of the Rapture, religious fundamentalists believe that Christ will spirit away the believers, saving them from the pain and experience of the Tribulation.  The Tribulation is the period of pain and suffering preceding the return of Christ as the savior and general, readied for battle with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Much of the horrors of the Book of Revelation are to take place in the Tribulation, though certainly not all mirror what occurs in “The Road.”  Nevertheless, there is the abandonment of Christ for the benefit of the following of the Beast, the defiling of the temple, the Seven Seal judgments and the Jewish exodus back into the desert.

And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices. Revelation 10:3.

Michael K. Williams is a legend, in my mind, for his portrayal of Omar Little on The Wire. It remains to be seen how well he capitalizes on a small but pivotal role as the Thief. The Thief represents what seems like the reticent breakdown in society... a player just beyond where the Man has gone, perhaps.

There are biblical imagery and motives throughout the book, though I don’t believe McCarthy wrote this specifically with the idea of Christian Armageddon in mind.  The waste laid to America is, however, biblical in nature and epic in proportion.  Furthermore, the remaining bands that comprise what one might call society would certainly follow in line with the rise of the Beast.  We have a turn toward the most harsh of taboos: cannibalism.

The Man and the Boy seem quite well aware that the main thing from which they run is not just death by capture or cold.  They are also running from cannibalism and the barbaric rape (both metaphorical and literal) at the hands of roving bands of road agents.  These are far beyond the road agents one might recall from Deadwood, and are more in line with those seen in The Hills Have Eyes.  In fact, the end result for those caught is functionally no different than what one would get in a George Romero zombie flick.

But the road agents do seem somewhat organized, if barbaric.  They are really more akin to those encountered by Mad Max in post-apocalyptic Australia.  Even the desert Mel Gibson traveled there and the wasted forests through which the Man and Boy travel are similar.  And the enemy is not far different, either.  They are banded together out of seeming convenience, ready to turn on each other in a moment’s notice if the case is presented.

And they are vicious, immediately ready to kill others to take.  The theme carries through with the Boy serving as the seeming final moral compass on Earth.  He is constantly concerned with whether or not the Man and the Boy collectively do good — even in the fact of the stark reality of death.  This is a common theme with the Boy wanting to perform charity, while still seeming to entertain and understand the reality that he and his father face death at every turn.  The Man often reminds him of this and of what others will do if the Man and Boy don’t act with the requisite desperation.  Their interaction at these times is almost a battle between what society once was and what apocalypse has driven it into being.

In addition to the breakdown of society in general, we see the struggle to balance protection with one of the other main taboos of society — that of suicide and euthanasia.  While mercy killings and end of life decisions are becoming more acceptable in society, we don’t think of these decisions when dealing with a child or a young mother.  And yet we see the implied suicide of the Boy’s mother (it’s not entirely clear what happened, but that she gave up).  And we also are witness to the Man’s inner struggle with his need to know the Boy is safe, and his commitment to protect him with death, if necessary.

We are confronted with an internal and external debate on this particular issue and it is done tastefully.  In other pop culture, the idea of saving a bullet for oneself is normally just a throwaway.  In popular culture, we usually only see it in the context of a murder suicide.  But here, McCarthy brings the issue to the fore as a matter of escaping with one’s purity and humanity — completely at odds with the normal, particularly the religious, view of suicide.


Here’s where McCarthy lost me a bit.  I’m not opposed to cumbersome and purposeful slants from normally structured prose.  Heck, my favorite author is Joyce, so I don’t exactly consider myself a grammarphile.  Nevertheless, McCarthy’s prose is very difficult to follow at times.

The gray, filtered image the movie stills portray is very true to the novel's setting.

It intentionally follows it own rules and paragraphs are strung together in a staccato manner to reflect the nature of life on the road.  I get that.  I’m not opposed to writing styles setting the tone of the storyline.  The problem I have is when that interferes with following the text.  In particular, conversations between the Boy and the Man are sometimes difficult to follow.  While each speaks with their own distinct voice in general, their interaction and talks often are short questions and shorter, even mono-syllabic, answers.  When these conversations are strung out over a quarter or half a page without identifiers, punctuation or breaks of any sort, it can easily become something which halts the reader’s progress and stunts the experience.

Maybe that’s McCarthy’s intention.  I’m not sure, but I personally did not get any great atmosphere granted by the punctuation and order of the writing.  That said, the actual language used is brilliant at times and truly does capture the bleak and desolate nature of “The Road.”  In particular, you truly get inside the idea of a struggle between inner strength and desperation and the attempts to overcome fatalism with empty hope.

As for the language used by the characters themselves, almost all of the interactions are between the Man and the Boy and McCarthy does not overthink the conversations.  One would imagine that their communication would be equally or more non-verbal than overt.  McCarthy grasps this and yet retains the subtlety of imparting this without being overly descriptive or obvious.  You’re able to visualize the scenes without McCarthy having to write it out for you.

Summing Up

The element I struggled most with in this book was the language McCarthy used.  I recalled discussions on and reviews of the film Lost in Translation (which has been sitting on my Netflix queue for two years without moving — largely because I still can’t forgive Sofia Coppola for The Godfather – Part III).  In Lost in Translation, Coppola created a setting in which viewing the film mimicked the jet lag experience of Bill Murray’s lead character.  I imagine it is what McCarthy tried to accomplish here.

Yet I could not get over the idea that McCarthy was trying to shoot the moon.  The subject matter, actual language and setting more than established the tone McCarthy sought, while his broken prose was overwhelming with disruption.

Overall, I understand the acclaim with which the book was received, but cannot rank it among the great works of classic fiction.  It is a world class novel and the best I’ve read this year, but it doesn’t get over the 9 out of 10 level.  In fact, the ending (which I will not spoil) makes me want to depart as did McCarthy and drop the book to an 8.5; however, the outstanding pace of the second 150 pages and the general detail with which McCarthy constructed a familiar, yet so foreign, land deserves the high praise and top flight status.  Despite my conflicting take on the book, I highly recommend it as a buy and a must read — particularly before seeing the movie.

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