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The Road – Cormac McCarthy * Book Review

The Road is the astonishing post-apocalyptic and Pulitzer Prize-winning modern classic by Cormac McCarthy.

A father and his young son walk alone through burned America, heading slowly for the coast. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the men who stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.

The Story

The Road is basically a love story between a man and his son, McCarthy dedicates this book to his own little boy at the start and it’s abidingly clear that the primary focus for the reader should be on this relationship and its development, it positively burns through the pages. Man and boy are nameless (as are most of the characters we meet) but it didn’t lessen the power of his writing to convey the incredible depth of their love and reliance on each other.

What we do learn is that there was an apocalyptic event around the time of the boy’s birth, its clear the effects were utterly devastating, life appears to have been extinguished save for a few pitiless souls left to walk the barren ash choked wasteland killing, stealing and scavenging for what’s left of any canned/preserved food or worse resorting to cannibalism. They trudge day after day through a world that appears stripped of life, of colour and a future for humankind. The boy knows nothing of the time before the tragedy, living in constant fear, cold and hunger for him is normality for the father it’s much worse, a desperate sadness at what has been lost that he is loathe to articulate, he remembers his old life in dreams and brief recollections and it’s from these that we get further insights into the past with his wife and family.

And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you? Waking in the cold dawn it all turned to ash instantly. Like certain ancient frescoes entombed for centuries suddenly exposed to the day.

The man is getting sicker by the day as they travel through the seemingly eternal grey, bleak, inhospitable, cold wasteland along a road. There is no sun, they are fighting constant starvation, the days are growing darker and colder as if heralding a nuclear style winter. They are moving south towards the coast as the father knows they can’t survive another winter where they’ve been living. It’s better for the father to have some goal to reach in order to hold on to his sanity and hope for the future and his son’s well being so they keep on the move. Hope, humanity, goodness and faith are key here it’s about “keeping the fire” as the father calls it, they are “the good guys” and his son demands reassurance of this fact at various stages and this sustains both of them despite the apparent desperateness of their situation.

No. I want you to wait here. Please, Papa. Stop it. I want you to do what I say. Take the gun. I dont want the gun. I didnt ask you if you wanted it. Take it.

The father is deeply mistrusting of anyone they meet with his fearsome desire to protect his child who he looks up to almost as a vessel of goodness in this hellish world. When certain incidents happen the boy gets very upset and begins to fear they are no longer the good guys, this schism reflects more on the general fear of any parent desperately wanting to equip their child with the tools for survival and independence but fighting the need to control and fiercely protect. To compound the issue, the father realises he’s running out of time but equally the son carries the burden of knowing that soon he will be left alone to fend for himself, this forms an unbearable emotional strain between them.

The tenderness the father expresses towards his son was deeply moving, despite the sparseness of the dialogue between them, the father is only still alive because of his son who is equally dependent on him. His fear and anguish over the boy at key moments made me pretty emotional, the future is left opaque and undecided, it may be hopeless it may not, the reader is left to surmise for themselves many things and that’s how it should be.

They hiked back down to the highway through the mud. Smell of earth and wet ash in the rain. Dark water in the roadside ditch. Sucking out of an iron culvert into a pool. In a yard a plastic deer. Late the day following they entered a small town where three men stepped from behind a truck and stood in the road before them. Emaciated, clothed in rags. Holding lengths of pipe. What have you got in the basket? He leveled the pistol at them. They stood. The boy clung to his coat. No one spoke. He set the cart forward again and they moved to the side of the road. He had the boy take the cart and he walked backwards keeping the pistol on them.

Outcome.

If you’re looking for a book about post-apocaliptic desolation without a lot of action going on, you hit the right book. The writing is poetic, filled with metaphors and a deep understanding of loneliness and love. BUT the book is bleak. It’s slow-going. It’s depressing. So depressing that I had to stop reading it in points as I couldn’t go with a greater speed of one page an hour.

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old chronicle. To seek out the upright. No fall but preceded by a declination. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

I can see why it won the Pulitzer prize – writing is very evocative. But in my eyes, the dread I felt when approaching this book was only due to the boredom I knew awaited me. I was waiting for something to happen for a very long time, to a point where I wanted one of the two to die so at least something happens! This may probably be called an American Classic and a masteripiece but in my eyes it’s a failure if it can’t bring the reader in and keep him there.

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and 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.

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