Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

If you tend toward a survivalist outlook and dream of the day you can build a bunker stocked with MREs, guns, and ammo, do not read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is in the top five most terrifying books I’ve read and afterwards, though this isn’t the point of the book, I found myself pricing long term food storage. The Road opens after an unknown disaster has burned everything and left the air full of ash. A man is traveling on the road with his son, heading south to where it might still be warm. Though it’s a dark and horrifying read, it’s the most sentimental of McCarthy’s works. The driving force is the man’s love for his son. This is able to parallel and at times surpass the depressing world around them.

This will sound insincere and hyperbolic, but The Road is the closest thing I’ve seen to a technically “perfect” novel and it’s certainly head and shoulders above McCarthy’s other works. McCarthy’s books feature uniquely horrific depictions of brutality. Unlike other authors, he does not glorify violence, jazz it up for sex appeal, or temper it with humor. In The Road, there is finally something to offset his characteristic cruelty: the love between father and son. This results in a story better balanced than his others.

In the previous paragraph I used the word “perfect”. I’m of the opinion that nothing written is perfect or even truly finished. There’s always some edit, some minor tweak, a poorly chosen phrase . . . something. But The Road hits its mark. There are no wasted words. Each description creates a deeper mood; each conversation builds the father/son connection. And, for once, McCarthy’s cast is small enough that his inability to use quotation marks doesn’t create confusion.

Adding another layer is that every now and then, there is a conversation that does not identify the respective speakers. These are interesting because you can read each line as said by either character and the conversation still works.

And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
Okay. (10-11)

The boy is asking “What would you do if I died.” It would be out of character for the man to ask since he isn’t one for dreary hypotheticals and prefers to keep the boy calm and safe. However, if the man were asking this question, the conversation would remain the same. The boy is the man’s only reason to push further south; and the man is the boy’s only protection. They cannot exist without the other.

Though this book is spectacular, it’s also spectacularly depressing. There is one scene that is so intense, and so terrifying, it makes me feel sick to think about. (If you’ve read the book, you can probably guess which.) Though I strongly recommend this book, it wouldn’t be quite right to recommend it without mentioning that you might want to line up something cheery to do when you’ve finished.

As an example, this is their conversation when hiding from a group of strangers who are looking for them:

He could hear them in the road talking. Voice of a woman. Then he heard them in the dry leaves. He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it. Take it, he whispered. Take it. The boy was terrified. He put his arm around him and held him. His body so thin. Dont be afraid, he said. If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. […] Do you understand?
I think so.
No. Do you understand?
Say yes I do Papa.
Yes I do Papa.
He looked down at him. All he saw was terror. He took the gun from him. No you dont, he said.
I dont know what to do, Papa. I dont know what to do. Where will you be?
It’s okay.
I dont know what to do.
Shh. I’m right here. I wont leave you.
You promise.
Yes. I promise. I was going to run. To try and lead them from away. But I cant leave you.

Even if you took out the people chasing them and replaced them with invincible zombies, you could not make this scene more frightening. I’d love to be able to write this way, but I suspect there’s a high emotional cost to keeping your mind in such a miserable place for however long it takes to write a book like this.

Overall: 4.999 (out of 5.0) I can’t give a 5, ha. I’ve written for too many teachers who preached against perfect scores for writing assignments that it must have rubbed off. How about I say the fraction was deducted on account of the ending feeling a little tacked on?

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