I don’t do many book reviews on this blog, but when I finished The Road the other day, I felt compelled to write something about it. In any case, I don’t consider this to be a review. There are already hundreds of those online. The book was a runaway success and most of you will probably have seen the recent movie adaptation (I haven’t). No, these are more the thoughts seeping from my freshly blown mind. This book is stunning; probably the best I’ve read of McCarthy’s and certainly the most thought provoking.
What I enjoyed most about his writing in All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men, is how much he makes from so little and how he makes that little work for him. He takes this to the next level here. When I was in journalism college, my lecturer constantly told me that every word has to earn its place on the page. I’ve yet to encounter an author that practices this as brilliantly as McCarthy. In the post-apocalyptic American setting of The Road, he squeezes so much from the bleakness of the landscape. He conjures up the most barren of imagery: dark and lonely, all the while being uber-economical with his language. In his previous books (particularly the Border Trilogy), he used this to positive effect. I wanted to experience the spaciousness and under-the-stars beauty of Southern America and Mexico. This time, he’s turned it on its head.
I love how McCarthy gradually feeds us lines of information… drip, drip and then suddenly, bang! He mentions nothing about how the earth found itself in this situation. He occasionally alludes to the past, but mostly in the form of memory. There is little historical information. It makes it all the more striking when he says, kind of in passing, that cows are extinct. Or when the boy is asks his father whether crows could fly high enough to see the sun, should they still exist. All the time, the reader is left to wonder what catastrophe could have befallen the planet, but such is McCarthy’s deftness of language, it never distracts from the actually story.
This, incidentally, focuses on the relationship between father and son in the most desperate of situations. They are traveling south… but why? To escape the cold? But what will they do when they get there? What hope do they have? They have no hope. They have nothing. Each is kept alive by the desire to maintain the other. At times, their plight is truly heartbreaking. Here is a little boy who has never had a friend. He doesn’t care if he dies or not, anesthetized as he is to human demise. McCarthy attempts to show just how inter-dependent father and son are on one another. The son will do anything the father says. He accepts anything he is told. The father does everything in his power to keep his son alive, despite the knowledge that they would both be better off dead.
No part of the book brings this home more forcefully than after a time they are confronted by one of the nomadic bands of cannibals. The father washes his son’s hair in a river, telling himself that he must wash the murderous brains he’s just blown from their assailant’s head from his son because that is his job. He is the boy’s father and he must try to keep his hair clean. Simple, yet devastatingly effective and it sums up what, for me, is the meaning of The Road. Even in the most horrifying circumstances, parents are driven by an unbreakable bond at childbirth, the evolutionary desire to keep their offspring.
I had a conversation with a friend the other day about modern literature. We were wondering which contemporary writers would be viewed as “classic authors” one hundred years from now. Which authors will be studied by sixteen year old high school students? We both immediately suggested McCarthy. His books are the most wonderfully analogous I recall from modern literature. We can all learn a lot from them and particularly, The Road.