Readers perusing reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 The Road hardly need one more consideration of that mega-hit, but I read it, and’ll have my say. (Perhaps one or two things here have been bypassed by the reviewing community, I couldn’t tell.)
Most will be familiar with the story: post-apocalyptic, (and probable), nuclear winter; man shepherding young son through the horror in a constant search for food, clothing, warmth, and (not least) secrecy to avoid murderers and cannibals.
Two quibbles: there are sporadic sections of writing that strain for the profound. For McCarthy, this comes about through grand abstractions and easy metaphors: i.e., “commissaries of hell”. That’s a pretty good association, but by that slice in the novel, we’ve had “[fill in] of hell” many times. Ditto with “black [fill in].” McCarthy’s powers of description – in vocabulary, in understanding of the (un?)natural world’s flux, and from the narrator’s self-sufficient wisdom – are awesome (I hope that last word still retains, somewhat, the power of its original meaning), and don’t need the buttressing overkill. The other problem has to do with biological and physiological plausibility. It’s hard to credit the father with the energy needed to carry out several of his arduous tasks in the desperate environment he and the boy find themselves in. The intricate (and fast) threading of sutures on his own arrow wound in the cold and dark, covered in dirt, already exhausted; the power needed to wade through ocean waves to scramble onto an ancient, decrepit ship in search for food and other items, therefrom crashing into a locked hold, all while seriously ill; and, (from the grimly amusing points taken from a blogging biologist), the mistakes made by cannibals on caloric comparisons in the two most lurid scenes (which I won’t spoil here for those who haven’t yet read the book).
Those negatives are easily washed away, though, in the hurricane-level strength of sure pacing (drama; narrative and tonal shifts), religious underpinning, philosophical deftness, and, most importantly, rhythmic drive. Some have reacted negatively to the relentless force of the prose, its biblical solemnity. But surely the content deserves the appropriate approach. McCarthy delivers, and the rhythmic intensity, at times, floods into a mystical super-container, no small feat when the narrative dwells on drifting ash, shivering, hunger, and constant fear.
The dialogue between father and son is also handled with great care, and gathers into an emotionally stark resolution. This would be dangerous material for any novelist to negotiate with. How McCarthy avoids mawkishness and unintentional hilarity is a tribute to his dramatic gifts. How he avoids descending into easy messaging on human sin and redemption is also impressive, given the layout.
Yeah, Oprah gave the book a shove. And it’s not a ‘beach read’ (stupid category).But if you haven’t read it, don’t be dissuaded by the synopsis. I’m no fan of genre fic, including the sub-genre of apocalyptic horror, but this has nothing to do with falling into the conventions of a plot on autopilot.