Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

For those of you following The Book Habit on Facebook, you may recall that a couple of weeks ago I put out a call for Cormac McCarthy recommendations. His is a name that I have come across consistently for a number of years now, leaving me with a mental note-to-self that this was an author for whom I should be looking out. McCarthy is hailed as one of the world’s greatest contemporary writers and his major works, including No Country for Old Men, constantly feature on lists of the best modern novels. Although it has taken me an inexcusably long time to get around to it, I finally ordered in a library copy of McCarthy’s The Road – on the basis that: (1) it had been recommended as a good starting point; and (2) if it failed to hook me, I at least had a Viggo Mortensen adaptation to look forward to. Sold.

The Road follows an unnamed father and son as they journey across a ravaged America. After a catastrophe of almost apocalyptic consequences (a catastrophe which is never detailed but appears to have been connected to an environmental disaster), the country has been left a devastated and burning wasteland. With the population seemingly decimated, the two central characters are making their way to the coast – facing down impending starvation and death as they scavenge for food. The picture painted by The Road is one of Hobbesian human nature – disparate groups that have traded in conscience for survival, turning to murder and cannibalism to avoid certain death. As father and son make their way to the coast, in the hope that it offers some kind of salvation, they face the dilemmas associated with such a moral vacuum. The question asked is one of sacrifice – the price willingly paid for survival.

This book was not what I was expecting. Despite being a physically easy read, at just 300 pages (and a sizeable font), it was one of the most emotionally troubling books that I have come across. Juxtaposing a terrifying savagery with the redemptive love of father and son, The Road is a novel that will leave you conflicted. It was one that I could not look forward to picking up but one by which I was, almost paradoxically, spellbound.

“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 out held 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.”

What The Road proves is that McCarthy is utterly deserving of his reputation. His narrative style is amongst the most beautiful and unique that I believe exists in contemporary literature. The novel reads as a constructed stream of consciousness, interspersed with dialogue between father and son. Combined with McCarthy’s decision to leave the two characters nameless, The Road is thus designed to pull the reader into the intimacy of this central relationship and enhance the sense of urgency that the novel communicates. Every aspect of the narrative is masterful and, however troubling the content, the book serves as perfect demonstration of McCarthy’s remarkable skill.

That said, The Road is harrowing and troubling. If read in this knowledge, it will deliver you an amazing experience of literary prose at its best. But it is not a book to read for relaxation or escapism. Rather, The Road is a lamentation for humanity, in which morality is redeemed only through the all-consuming bond that exists between father and son.

“An hour later they were on the road. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things. In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.” 

This is a novel about which I was left feeling completely ambiguous. I have never before been so glad to finish a book. But I believe this proves that McCarthy has achieved precisely what he set out to when he wrote The Road. He paints a terrifyingly prophetic picture from which you will want to look away. Yet the beauty of his words clench and convince in a manner that will remain with you long after you have closed the final pages. This is a book that I could not shake. And while I was relieved to finish, I have been left with no doubt that The Road is a novel of tremendous literary power.


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