The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road had a profound effect on me. Not because of McCarthy’s writing style, this being my first encounter with it; or because of the audaciousness of his post-apocalyptic vision, the only one I’ve read without a shred of hope; or the biblical references, of which I am always slow on the uptake. I know all of these things are there but I can’t read The Road as anything other than an allegory for parenting, and here I could add, “in a time of crisis” or “in the modern world” or something but it’s not necessary, the world’s always in crisis and parenting exists outside of time, which is exactly the feeling this story gives me.

I would have read it this way even without knowing that McCarthy was inspired by a road trip with his son, who, I keep having to remind myself, is not a heck of a lot older than my kids, though McCarthy is fifty years my senior. That’s interesting as a juicy biographical detail, and it’s probably relevant that McCarthy wrote this story about a father and son not from distant memory, but from recent experience. And while all parents hope to be outlived by their children, this type of thinking might weigh a little heavier on the mind of a man becoming a father at the age of sixty five (though not for the first time; McCarthy’s first son was born in 1962, which makes him four years older than the second son’s mother. Told you that biography was juicy!)

So while I understand common criticisms, mostly that it “has no plot” or “has no character development,” I don’t think it needs those things to work. The types of plots that drive most post-apocalyptic novels don’t apply here. There aren’t enough survivors, human or otherwise, to provide any hope of rebuilding society. And “character” isn’t worth much in a world where “not being a cannibal” is too high a bar for most people to clear. We’re left with a father trying to prepare his son to carry on after he’s gone, which is all any parent really does.

The most touching moments for me were when the father tries to balance teaching his son what he needs to know to survive, and sparing his feelings. I struggle to maintain this level of self-awareness with my kids at times, and I’m not scavenging cans of beans and stepping over burned bodies. When the son accidentally wasted their gasoline:

They ate a cold supper of cornbread and beans and franks from a tin. The boy asked him how the tank had gone empty so soon but he said that it just had.
You said it would last for weeks.
I know.
But it’s just been a few days.
I was wrong.
They ate in silence. After a while the boy said: I forgot to turn off the valve, didnt I?
It’s not your fault. I should have checked.
The boy set his plate down on the tarp. He looked away.
It’s not your fault. You have to turn off both valves. The threads were supposed to be sealed with teflon tape or it would leak and I didnt do it. It’s my fault. I didnt tell you.
There wasnt any tape though, was there?
It’s not your fault.

Most of the book is like this, dialog without punctuation, not even apostrophes, except where they’re needed to distinguish “its” from “it’s”. But once in a while the writing is like this:

The 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.

How you react to either of these passages is more a matter of taste than something to evaluate objectively. Love it or hate it, this is a book about a stripped down world and the writing reflects that. Nothing superfluous until suddenly everything seems superfluous. How many ways are there to say that everything is grey, charred, burned? It is boring and repetitive, or is that the point (parenting, FYI, can be very boring and repetitive.)

One more common criticism: no women. Oprah called him out on it. There is a woman, though, the boy’s mother, who lives a little bit in memory and lives large on just four pages of the book. Wildly different in tone, we see a conversation between the woman and the man in which she decides to kill herself, and he begs her not to. The dialog is suddenly overdone, preposterously so, and I wonder why we are witnessing it. It does open up the perfect (if dark) book club question: what would you do? Would you spare yourself the almost certain pain, degradation, and despair of the road ahead, or would you travel it anyway?

The Road is the only book this year to truly captivate me, in a way that only books about parenting in crisis situations seems to do (see also: Room, Days of Abandonment and The Bear). Reading this kind of story lets my mind and heart work out things it can’t do in day to day life. And it’s damn entertaining, in the darkest and most morbid of ways. Parent or not, The Road will open your mind and heart too.

Watch out for that cellar scene though. Damn.

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8 comments

  1. FictionFan

    I hated most of the writing in this and yet ended up loving the book. I did feel there was the tiniest bit of hope at the end – of what, though, I wasn’t quite sure. That humanity as an attribute would remain until the last human was gone? That there is some form of redemption in even the bleakest situation? That God exists? I don’t know – and I have to tell you it’s at least three years since I read it and it still rattles round my mind in the long reaches of the night. So I actually have come to appreciate it even more than I did when I was reading it…

  2. annelogan17

    Shit girl, I think this book is too much for me to read. I don’t know if I could survive it without crying to my husband every night until I finished it. I wished i had read it before kids, back when I wasn’t such a wimp.But now I’m so intrigued! What is the cellar scene????

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