Aug 21, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

In a world destroyed by a cataclysm that remains unexplained, a father and a young son walk along the road. Their ages are never given, and neither are their names. They are referred to simply as the man and the boy. The man and the boy are somewhere in America, and all we know is that they are journeying south, hoping to escape the bitter cold. Along the way, they eat what they can find, they spot destroyed forests and ashes everywhere, and the few times they come across other survivors, they witness human behaviour at its very worst.

This is a difficult book to write about, just like it was a difficult book to read. It was emotionally draining, and even after letting over a week pass in the hope that my ideas would become clearer, I’m still struggling. Let me start by pointing out that this novel reminded me a lot of Byron’s “Darkness”, one of my favourite poems. This is a poem that I recommend even to those of you who aren’t too fond of poetry, because it’s basically a post-apocalyptic short story. A very bleak one, but also a brilliant one.

If in “Darkness” the only saving emotion in a destroyed world is the tenderness between a dog and its master, in The Road it’s the love between a father and his son. The Road is a very sad book, and like I said, an emotionally consuming one. But it’s also very touching, and very very tender. This tenderness proves to be crucial to both father and son, as well as to humanity as a whole.

I know that a lot of you have read this book, and even those who haven’t have probably heard that Cormac McCarthy uses an unconventional writing style. I can be a bit picky when it comes to these things, and a complete lack of commas and an occasional lack of contractions is the exact kind of stylistic option that tends to get on my nerves. But in this case it didn't at all. I’m not sure if it was because I was expecting it or what, but I think that the writing style suits the story perfectly. After a while I stopped noticing that there was anything unusual about it, and to me that’s proof that it’s working. (And as I was saying yesterday, it's also the exact opposite of what happened with The Zigzag Way.)

I grew to care deeply for this unnamed man and his son. I worried about their safety, I felt for them when they felt pain, hunger, discomfort, hopelessness. The man and his son have made a choice. They decided that no matter how hungry and desperate they become, there are lines that they will not cross. There are rules they will never break. As the man often tells his young son, they are “the good guys” and they “carry the fire”.

I think that extreme situations, be they real or imaginary, are magnifying glasses that show people at their very best and at their very worst. I also think it’s hard to predict how each of us would react in a situation of this kind. Of course, we’d all like to think we wouldn’t cross certain lines either. But wouldn’t we? A story about two survivors in a post-apocalyptic world who call themselves “the good guys” could easily turn into a self-righteous or moralistic story. And yet McCarthy manages to avoid this completely.

There are several instances in the book in which we are shown that it’s the presence of the boy that keeps the man from committing acts of violence. It is love, then, and not some kind of inherent superiority, that sets them apart. It’s love, tenderness, compassion. It’s the ties that unite them. This is the fire, the spark of humanity, that they carry. The fire that must never go out. And it’s this that makes The Road such a moving and human book.

The Road made me want to cry so many times. I can hardly imagine a more heartbreaking scenario than the one presented in this book. Imagine being a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world. Would you want your loved ones with you? My initial response would be “yes”, but as the man sees every day, having someone you love with you makes every hardship even harder to bear. It makes everything more painful, because you know in your bones just how much they are suffering. Yet on the other hand, it ties you to life, and it keeps you human. It ensures that you never lose your ability to feel, without which there can be no compassion, without which every line can be crossed.

I’ve blabbed for long enough. Just one more thing. The writing is absolutely amazing. See for yourself:
The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal wind to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

In those first few years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and googles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.

In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a travelling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the interstate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere to hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
Other Blog Reviews:

Trish’s Reading Nook
My Year of Reading Seriously
Everyday Reads
In Spring it is the Dawn
Books i done read
Some Reads
The Inside Cover
My Own Little Reading Room
Back to Books
Reading Adventures
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Maggie Reads
Thoughts of Joy
A Fraternity of Dreamers
Library Queue
Becky's Book Reviews
Savvy Verse & Wit
Melody's Reading Corner
The Well-Read Child
Diary of an Eccentric
Book Escape (Nicole's Review)
Book Escape (Nicole's Husband's Review)
Hello, My Name is Alice
Reading Reflections
Stella Matutina
Reading Room
In Search of Giants
Books and Needlepoint
Book Addiction
DogEar Diary

(Have I missed yours? If so, please let me know and I'll add it to this list.)


  1. Wow. Incredibly powerful! I will try to work up the courage to read it.

  2. Here's my review of it.

    Becky, Becky's Book Reviews

  3. There are many adjectives that can be used to describe The Road - bleak, harsh, disturbing, apocryphal, horrifying - but my favorite is "hopeful" and this is why:

    "It’s love, tenderness, compassion. It’s the ties that unite them. This is the fire, the spark of humanity, that they carry. The fire that must never go out."

    You have a wonderful ability to capture and describe the essence of a story - I LOVE your reviews...

  4. Yes, another fabulous review, thank you!

    I actually haven't ever read McCarthy and had not heard of The Road before until reading about the upcoming film (apparently the aussie actor playing the boy is quite a find). The description of the book/film were so intriguing that I bought the book first chance I got. Its sitting on my shelf and may be a while before I get round to it, but I will definitely do so before the film.

    Sounds wonderful.

  5. Fascinating review, Nymeth. I must admit that I've not been attracted to reading McCarthy's work, but I am intrigued by the film version of The Road which is released next year (I think)

  6. You've certainly stumbled upon a run of 'no commas' books, haven't you? :) I wonder often about this book as in many ways it seems right up my alley and yet I tend to run screaming from genre books that don't just appeal to genre lovers but bust the doors wide open and go up on everyone's lists. It is a ridiculous thing, really but I often feel that way. Your review, and your difficulties with writing it, certainly seem to be in line with other things I've read about or heard about the story. I do think I want to read it but admit to maybe being a little intimidated by it...not sure exactly why.

    Darkness sounds wonderful and I'll be checking that out immediately! Thanks!

  7. What a wonderful review! I too feel intimidated by the book and not a little afraid but I will buck up the courage to read it sometime as it feels like a 'must read'.

  8. Wow, sounds like a must-read!

  9. This is a fantastic book and should be read. Here's my review:

  10. This is both a powerful and a sad book. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it, Nymeth. Here's my review. ;)

  11. I really need to get around to reading this book!

  12. Wonderful review! I've only read "No Country For Old Men," which I loved and reviewed over on mine. We have "The Road" sitting on our shelf and I haven't quite worked up the nerve to read it yet but I will before the film. I don't think McCarthy is usually either my style or my subject, but gaging by how much I liked NCFOM I'm sure I'll like "The Road." Eventually.

  13. Lovely review Nymeth, as always.

    Thank you for the Byron link. I'm not much a fan of poems and only read a selected few. Will look it up.

  14. I feel like I'm the last person in the world to read this book!! I'm definitely going to though.

    A wonderful review, as always!

  15. Nymeth I so enjoyed your review of this! I have sort of wanted to read this book but kind of figure I need to be in the right mood for it. I don't know when I'll get to it but I'm definitely keeping it in mind.

  16. What an excellent review of a book that was difficult to read. Thanks for the link.

    This is a book that has, in some ways, stayed with me this long after reading it.

    After so much time, I regret that I didn't mention the scene where the man remembered when his wife left them, when she gave up. How heart-wrenching.


  17. I agree with your review. I was emotional drained and in a funk for quite some time afterwards. Isn't it amazing that a writer can provoke such deep emotions in us?

  18. Robin: It's worth it, it really is.

    Becky: Thanks for the link!

    Ken: First of all, thank you so much! It really makes me happy to hear that. And you're right, "hopeful" is the right word. I didn't expect the story to be hopeful, but it was.

    Mariel: I didn't know the movie was coming so soon! I wonder how the story will work as a movie. I look forward to your thoughts on the book.

    Brideofthebookgod: Somehow I had the impression that he wouldn't be for me either...but then I decided to give this one a try, and I was happy to be proven wrong!

    Carl: I know how you feel...I tend to avoid those books too, and I think it's because it annoys me a bit that even though they are science fiction or fantasy or whatever, they are taken seriously by a "mainstream" audience because they're by the "right" author or won the "right" literary prize...and all of this while we know that there are hundreds of books that are unashamedly part of a genre and deserve to be taken just as seriously, yet aren't. Of course that the books themselves are not to blame for this, but it's only human to be annoyed. But this one really is worth reading. I hope you enjoy Darkness!

    Cath and Kim: I do think it is a must-read. Can't wait to read your thoughts on it.

    Serena: Agreed! Thanks for the link.

    Melody: I really did! And thanks for the link. Doing a google reader search for reviews of this one was hard because it came up with lots of results for the EW New Classics list.

    Kailana: Indeed you do!

    Kate: I need to eventually pick up No Country For Old Men too. Somehow I thought he wouldn't be my kind of writer either, but this one jusr blew me away.

    Lightheaded: Thank you :) I hope you enjoy the poem!

    Stephanie: I think I was one of the last too :P But it's never too late!

    Iliana: Yes, I think being in the right mood for this one helps. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    CJ: It really was. That was one of the many scenes that brought tears to my eyes.

    Joy: Yes, it is. It's not often that you find a book this powerful.

  19. I too got used to McCarthy's writing style fairly quickly - I was surprised. I'll be reading this soon-ish; before the end of the year if I can stick to my reading plan!

  20. Seems a popular book judging by the number of reviews alone. Definitely sounds gripping and something I would be interested in reading. Thaks t=for the review as believe it or not I hadn't heard of it before.

  21. You hit it right on the head Nymeth, well done. That is exactly the way that I feel about it.

    And I did like Darkness...I liked it very much! Byron could certainly haven't written a killer post-apocalyptic novel! Whoa! I can see roots of that poem in the later work of Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson.

  22. What a brilliant review, Nymeth! You and Trish have renewed my excitement in reading this one. I am not sure I want to take it to Hawaii with me, but it's tempting.

  23. Terri B: I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    Rhinoa, I hope you enjoy it. I hadn't heard of it (or of McCarthy) either until other bloggers started reviewing it.

    Carl: Good point about Lovecraft! I was also reminded of Bradbury's short story "There Will Come Soft Rains".

    Literary Feline, thank you :) I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.

  24. This is on my to be read immediately list! I really appreciated your thoughtful review. My husband read the script for the movie and thought it captured the essence you spoke of in your review. Here's hoping it's as good as the book.

  25. Great review! I'd really like to read this one, and I'll have to check out "Darkness," the poem you mentioned. I thought his lack of punctuation and quotations would trip me up while I was reading No Country for Old Men, but I found that I really liked his style. I would also like to read Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses.

  26. The Road was a great book! I blogged about it over a year ago, back when I was really new at the book blog thing. Here's the link:

  27. Jessica: I hope it's as good as the book too! Though that would be hard, so if it's nearly as good I'll be happy :P I look forward to your thoughts on this one.

    Charley: I actually didn't know that he used the same writing style in this other books. Normally that would scare me a bit, but since it didn't bother me in The Road I don't think it will in the others either. I really look forward to reading more of his work.

    Anna: Thanks for the link!

  28. A fabulous review of a fabulous book! I also thought the style worked really well and it didn't bother me at all. In fact, I didn't expect to like it as much as I did but it's definitely one of my top reads of the year!

  29. From the looks of it, I'm in the minority who hasn't yet read it. I bought it for the End of the World challenge, and even though I've sort of ditched that, this is one I still hope to get to very soon. Though I fully admit, it scares me a bit.

  30. I read this one awhile ago on my husband's recommendation. I actually struggled with it. My review is here:

    My husband read it and revied it also. He liked it better. His review is here:

    I really enjoyed your review. It actually helped me "get" the book a little more.

  31. tanabata: Same here. Somehow I really didn't expect to enjoy it so much.

    Debi: I can see how this book can seem intimidating, but I really think you'll find it worth it.

    Nicole: Thanks for the links! I can see why some readers would struggle with this's not a book everyone would enjoy. I'm glad that you found my review helpful, though :)

  32. Reading your review gave me chills--for having a tough time with the review you did a beautiful job.

    I'm not sure where to go from here (I haven't had a chance to respond to the comments on my post and at this point don't know if I will...)

    I've read this and No Country for Old Men and then the first two books of the Border Triology (All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing). Except for the writing style and the extreme bleakness, they are all very different. I think I am more attached to The Crossing because I did a term paper on it my last semester of grad school. I think you would find that one interesting as well. I've heard that Blood Meridian is very good, but I haven't gotten to it yet.

  33. Fantastic review Nymeth! I'm kind of scared of starting this book... but if you can see through the bleakness to the love then maybe I will too.

  34. I love this story, Nymeth. I finished it in one sitting mid last year. I was recommended to read McCarthy by an American dude, Doug J. He's our principal consultant and I worked in a US-based management consulting firm before joining a local general insurance company. :)

    If you'd like to add my review, here's the link:

  35. Trish, thank you for the recommendations. I will definitely look for those. And thank you, as always you are too kind :)

    Joanna: I'm sure you will too. I look forward to your thoughts on this one.

    Alice: Thanks for the link! This was such a great read, wasn't it?

  36. Here is my link for this review


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