The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are large holes in my reading experience — works by acclaimed authors I ought perhaps to have read by now, novels which have created genres, shaped cultures and incited passions, pro and con. There are writers I have tried to read – really, I have – but whose styles made me want to engage in self-flagellation as the lesser of two tortures: William Faulkner, John Updike, Gabriel García Márquez, Virginia Woolf; others whose classics I promise to tackle someday, when I’m smarter and less distracted: James Joyce, Nikolai Gogol, Mary Doria Russell, Herman Melville.

Then there are those celebrated writers who choose subjects or settings which don’t much interest me. With some significant exceptions, I’ve never been keen on books set in the Deep South or in America’s West or in a dystopian near future. So, I’ve always passed on Cormac McCarthy.

Certainly, The Road was never going to be my cuppa. Grim, post-apocalyptic and hopeless are not for this reader who prizes sinking into a good story above all. But when I read reviews as passionate as Nandakishore Varma’s or as insightful as Jay ‘s, who puts McCarthy on the same high rung as two of my favorite authors – Tim Winton and Colm Tóibín – I know I am missing something great.

Why I started with The Road and why I read it during a painful, angry, bleak period in my life really don’t matter in the end. Because by the end of this book – which I soaked up, transfixed, in a day – I was a reader and writer transformed.

To read The Road is to experience a writer working as a poet, creating a narrative in which every word has weight and meaning and every sentence has a rhythm, in which the omission of punctuation and manipulation of words create something recognizable but unfamiliar; techniques that work in concert to create the mood, tone and color of each scene:

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

When you read this paragraph aloud, you breathe along with the man. You take in what he sees and smells, the horror dawning as the weak light of the flame reveals a Holocaust.

Be warned, for three hundred pages of a living nightmare will shatter your soul. But the brutality is balanced by a tender and beautiful relationship between the man and his son. McCarthy’s story, absent of all sentimentality and sheared of all hope, still allows us to believe in mercy and dignity.

The reader never learns why the world was nearly destroyed or by whom or what. The plot is as bare as the blasted out forests and abandoned cities that the man and his son trudge past on their way south, to the ocean. We never learn what they hope to find there, at the water’s edge, at the end of their world. The past and the future are not relevant to The Road. Only the present journey matters, and it serves as a warning to a world in grave danger of losing its way.

I don’t know that I could read The Road again. But I will return to passages, to be reminded of the power of word choice and placement, the poetry of well-crafted prose. And although I know this novel stands apart from others in McCarthy’s œuvre, I look forward to exploring more of his world.

View all my reviews