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Friday, June 27, 2008

Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Who would have thought poor punctuation and plodding prose could be so absorbing? But in Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road it is. Don’t be misled, the poor punctuation and plodding prose are not mistakes, but techniques which convey the mood of the story in The Roadand enhance the story-telling. And while the story lumbers along, McCarthy’s poetic descriptions of a post-apocalyptic landscape gives one the sense of walking along with the father and son protagonists.

The setting is America after some great catastrophe which has left behind an entirely scorched, physically and psychologically, land. Very few people have survived and those that have struggle to survive both the environment which is utterly devastated and the roaming bands of marauders.

The father and son slowly make their way to the coast where they hope to find … Hope. They don’t know what the form of that Hope will be, but their love for each other keeps them moving.

Within the story, McCarthy’s simplistic third-person, prose style is so (I hate to use the term) monotonous (in a good way!) that when he alters this style (switching briefly to the 1st person in one scene and in others using an almost poetic style) he draws attention to particular parts of the story. These parts are so entirely different they almost scream out from the page.

Here’s an example. Imagine pages and pages (180 to be exact) of this:

They went through the last of the cars and then walked up the track to the locomotive and climbed up to the catwalk. Rust and scaling paint. They pushed in to the cab and he blew away the ash from the engineer’s seat and put the boy at the controls. The controls were very simple. Little to do but push the throttle lever forward. He made train noises and diesel horn noises but he wasnt (sic) sure what these might mean to the boy. After a while they just looked out through the silted glass to where the track curved away in the waste of weeds. If they saw different worlds what they knew was the same. That the train would sit there slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again.

Can we go, Papa?
Yes. Of course we can.”

(Then it launches into this – the first of a handful of these poetic moments)

They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterns. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all the stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land…the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.”

Then back to the simple prose for another 80 or so pages. Does that make the simple prose sound boring? It really isn't - the characters and the story are remarkable!

There are some distressing scenes in this book, so be warned. The food has run out in this world and you can imagine the result.

But there is good and hope and redemption even in this most evil, hopeless, and lost world. Truth and beauty have somehow managed to stay alive in the hearts of some; the father and son call it "the fire", I call it faith.


Anonymous said...

I just read this book and I can’t stop thinking about it. I find myself particularly fascinated by the puzzle of the “where” and the “when” of the setting. We think it takes place after a nuclear war because of a very brief and vague description of flashes of light followed by explosion sounds. So one assumes this novel must be set in the future. But I’m almost convinced that the time is actually an alternate past comparable to the time in “No Country for Old Men.” There is no mention of cell phones, computers, or any electronics that might date the story to the near present. The author refers to an appliance store filled with gleaming electronic appliances which remained unmolested by the looters. The store used the name “sundries”. I visualized a store in which one could buy electric mixers, toasters, and other electronic appliances that you can no longer buy in a specialty store but can buy very cheaply at a Walmart. Nuclear stockpiles have declined over recent years. I put the when between 1970 and 1980 when the stockpiles were at or near their peak.

As for the where, I don’t know my geography well enough to place it exactly. The trip heads south towards a coastal region in the United States. There is no mention of a language barrier between the main characters and survivors which suggests the story does not happen in Florida or Texas. The presence of a mountain crossing and the absence of palm trees and cacti seems to suggest that one can rule out traveling south through California (the mountain-ocean trip would be to the west). I think that the characters travel through Tennessee (the only town mentioned by name is “Rock City” and there is a Rock City Tennessee. If they crossed the mountains heading south and continued the same direction, one might estimate that they would end up on the southern coast of Georgia although it doesn’t make sense to me why they would cross mountains to reach the Atlantic coast when they could head for the Gulf without crossing mountains.

brd said...

It is, of course, a trip through the Smoky Mountains, near Knoxville, where McCarthy lived for some of his life. The Rock City signs pepper the landscape here.

But I wonder too about the precise route. Surely someone will map one out for us. I'm picturing the road from Gatlinburg, Tn to Cherokee, NC, but that doesn't quite fit with Rock City. Perhaps they are edging the west part of the mountains, Rte 129 or 411.

Anonymous said...

It appears they're moving south along I-75 where there are many “See Rock City” signs. Rock City is mentioned before the resort town (Gatlinburg, TN). I’d have to read it again for clues, but the city before Gatlinburg may be Knoxville. The gap with its exact elevation and parking lot description is New Found Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once across the mountains they go south, then East to the coast in the Carolinas. It appears many of the locations are based on real places along the rout.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to have found your blog while searching for a book review of McCarthy's The Road. I'm a Christian homeschooling mom. And my son (8th) took a wonderful creative writing classs this summer with 5 other high school boys at the local library. The teacher is now organizing a literature-based class for the Fall, and has chosen this book with these 5 boys in mind. My question posed to you. Would you allow your 8th grade son to read this book? From reading of reviews on Amazon, I'm thinking its an adult read. Not a read for impressionable passion-seeking young men. This book is on the American Library's Association of recommended reads for high schoolers, which brings more dimension to my hesitation. I'm leaning on a "no" to this literature opportunity. My thinking, this doesn't correlate with our scheduled academic plan. The class is not being taught by a Christian-believer. The book may be too emtionally charged with no faith bearings.
Thanks for any opinions you can give.

p.s. Rock City is just outside of Chattanooga, an area we stayed this past winter.

lburgess4 (at) tds (dot) net

Kerry said...

lburgess4: I am going to email you, too, but you asked some good questions I wanted to answer here for others who might stumble on to this post.

I also have an 8th grade son, so I can answer with a mind to your situation.

Would I allow my 8th grade son to read this book. Hmmm.... I would be real hesitant, but I wouldn't forbid it. I would be quite hesitant for him to read it without a Christian guide. As I remember, there are wonderful faith glimpses in this book, but they could easily be missed or twisted to a humanistic interpretation. It is a good book, though.

Right now I'm reading CS Lewis' "The Four Loves" and I think The Road would be an excellent book to read and discuss after reading "The Four Loves" - and in light of Lewis' wisdom concerning Christian love.

There are some seriously scary and upsetting aspects to this book. The most frightening are the cannabalistic gangs that hunt the road and villages along the road. This makes it sound like a horror book, but it really isn't. You need to consider whether something like that would upset your son.

Finally, while an 8th grader or high schooler could certainly potentially handle and learn from this book with the right teacher, the question is will they *really* get this book. I'm not sure. That doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile for them to read. Sometimes those books you read and don't really get as a young adult come to mean more as you grow.

I would suggest you get a copy and read it yourself. It isn't a long read. At least if you decide to say "no" your son will feel that you did so based on specific knowledge.

My best to you!

Unknown said...

Cormac Mccarthy's The Road is a dark, post apocalyptic journey through the remnants of the world as we know it, with the faintest flicker of hope at the end.

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