The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a story of the journey of a father and son across the lifeless, blasted terrain of post-apocalyptic America. There is nothing living except a few bands of desperate survivors; the barren earth is no longer capable of supporting complex life. The only food available is what can be scrounged from the ruins, the only fresh meat is human flesh. The man and the boy are heading south, but they have no reason to believe that what they find will be any better than anywhere else. To the north, however, lies certain death from exposure and starvation.

They have a gun, with two bullets. One for each of them.

We would never eat people, the boy asks. No, never, the man replies.

The man and the boy are never named, conceits like that belong to another world, a place that doesn’t exist any more, a place the boy has never known. In the new, unrelentingly grim, world, there are only bad guys — people who will do anything, anything at all, to stay alive — and good guys — people who still entertain notions of right and wrong. People who, in the words of the boy, are carrying the flame. Even in the face of the horrifyingly pragmatic decisions the man has to make, the boy retains an inherent goodness, and on his shoulders lie the future of mankind.

I was going to write that McCarthy has discarded many of the rules of modern grammar and style, but it would be more accurate to say that he has developed his own grammar and honed it over the years. Rather than bind his sentences with the concepts of subject and verb, in McCarthy’s writing sentences are units of thought, impressions, fragments that map the experience of the characters. Most of the time this works, but sometimes in dialog it is easy to lose track of who is saying what, and the prose sometimes suffers from ambiguous pronouns. When reading this story it’s best not to worry about those things too much, but to let the words flow, bump, jitter, and lapse into silence the way the writer intended them to.

I can see them coming now, the scores of writers who think that it is McCarthy’s style that makes him such a compelling writer, and who will try to imitate him with disastrous results. What makes McCarthy a good writer is his clear vision, his ability to make language work for him, and his ability to create sympathetic characters in the bleakest of situations.

The future shown in this story is a grim one indeed, and there were times I thought to myself “all right, already, life sucks, I get it.” But there is movement in the unrelenting gray of the world, as we see the toll the road takes on the travelers, and watch as their courses diverge. This is a mighty fine read.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

7 thoughts on “The Road

  1. Every time I see a movie based on one of Cormac McCarthy’s books, I vow that I will read it … sometime … when I have time …

    He does seem to have this recurring theme of people doing what they gotta do. I just recently watched All the Pretty Horses, and while I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ve read the reviews and seen the commercial for No Country for Old Men. I hope to see it soon.

    On a peripherally related note, there’s one shot in the commercial, where the audience sees the villain from behind, backlit, a large handgun silhouetted in the reflection off the fender of the 1972 Oldsmobile that he is lurking beside.

  2. Sounds like he did a reverse remake of “A Boy and His Dog,” the cinematic vehicle that launched Don Johnson into his career. Let’s do a movie version of The Road using only footage from the afore mentioned filmatic gem, and, of course, some re-dubbing of the dialogue…

  3. The Postman.
    The Postman is a post apocalyptic book that was made into a movie starring Kevin Costner. The book was fair mind candy. I never saw the movie. The last movie I saw with Costner was Open Range where Costner’s acting sucked, Duvall was pretty darned good, but Costner directs and the movie ends with one of the best dadgummed shoot out scenes ever filmed.
    But I bring up Postman, because that used to be the default expression of humility when I was in a band. The band might go out and see another band at a club and if the guitarist, or whomever, was particularly good and made us feel crummy, we’d say something like, “Sheesh, I’m gonna go be a postman.” No disrespect intended.
    A few years ago I picked up a book at a garage sale. One of those old hardbacks, that people in a bookclub probably received. It is titled Whistle.
    So I read the inner flap to see if it is something worth spending a buck on at a garage sale. And I learned a lot. Everybody knows of the famous movie, From Here to Eternity, the whole Burt Lancaster rolling in the waves with whats-her-name, Frank Sinatra, some guy playing a bugle, while off screen a trumpeter makes sounds that a bugle never could (I’ll let John H. weigh in on that one). While in the late 1990s we got the one-two punch of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. I’m one of the few people who like both. Terrance Malick made an incredible movie in TRL (I’ll let pL weigh in on that one). But who knew they are all part of a trilogy written by the same James Jones: Eternity, Red Line, and Whistle. I had no idea. So I bought the book and vowed to pick up FHTE and TRL from Amazon and read them first (I’ll let Jer weigh in on Amazon).
    So the other day we moved a bookcase to a different room, and in the process of moving books, I ran across the Whistle I had forgotten about, and rememberd I need to read the trilogy. I shortly went down to the library and checked out FHTE.
    Lots o’ people on this bloggcomm want to be writers, myself included, but now I just want to be a postman. I am only a third of the way thru the book, so it may turn out sucky. But at the moment, I am blown away by this dude’s writing. Hemingway, Austen, Orwell, Joyce…how come we never hear about Jones? Why wasn’t he assigned in Highschool? Well, it is too early to tell, and like I say it may all fade to a dud in the end.
    Jer’s entry makes me think of Jones, because he is making up lot’s of his own spellings, mainly in dialogue to better reflect the real talk of “soljers” (as a matter of fact his spelling). It is a bit of a mystery tho, because there have been some out and out typos – way more than usual. THe publisher is Delta whom I’ve never heard of. I wonder if they are some third rate, cheapo imprint, that outsources their typesetting to Libya (I’ll let the Pikers weigh in on their hardware brethren). One mystery is if Jones intended to spell all of his “donts” sans apostrophe. He does use apostrophes elsewhere and I can’t tell if it is a typesetting error or an honest style element. (And why would a public library buy from such a cheapo publisher?)
    IN old age I have become a somewhat lazy reader, I don’t have time for lots of description, especially scenery. When the killer walks into a room, and the writer starts to describe the intricate layout of everything, my eyes glaze over and I scan to the meat of the passage. But with FHTE I found myself instantly slowing down, relishing every fabulous turn of phrases.
    And I get two more books of this. Woohoo.

  4. Thanks for the review, Jesse. Looks like another writer on the to-read list. You know you’re in good hands when you find yourself relishing descriptions like that. Generally it means that the author is showing you something ordinary but with different lighting, making you see it differently than you ever have before. In The Monster Within, there are a couple of places where I just say “you’ve seen places like that before,” and just leave the description like that, because I have nothing new to offer. Most places I try to use character’s reactions to the environment do the work of the description.

    (Having said that, I resolve to go back and see if it’s true.)

    Note: after reading this comment, I decided the rest was really a blog episode in its own right. The rest of this might sound familiar, although it was the postman angle in Jesse’s comment that got me to typing.

    Most Fridays over at Fantasy Magazine there is a “Blog for Beer” contest in which they give $10 for the best F/SF comment – either a bit of original work, a review, or whatever. This last week they decided to have a special year-end version of that contest, with a bigger prize and more time to post. Entries were to be on the theme “The Best of the Year”.

    What the heck, I figured, and the other night I jotted out a little blurb that in the end really had nothing to do with fantasy or science fiction. It was an OK mood piece though — it needs some work to be actually good, but it was a decent rough draft. It really didn’t follow the contest guidelines but I went ahead and posted it anyway.

    The reason I bring this up here is the postman theme. My post was followed by a very complimentary post by a guy who recently quit his job at the post office to become a writer. Judging by his comment, he may be hoping to be the Bukowski of fantasy.

  5. On the subject of The Postman by David Brin, I thought it was a pretty good book. The idea behind it was excellent, and the story went along all right. I never saw the movie, but the previews seemed to have no relation to the book whatsoever.

    I’m trying to remember what book of Brin’s it was that got me reading him consistently, but it escapes me now. I know it was not The Practice Effect.

    As for Costner, Fandango was one of his earliest movies, and the one I enjoyed the most. He plays the same character he does in every movie, but it hasn’t gone stale yet. The rest of the cast is excellent, and the movie has lots of good laughs punctuated with poignancy. It’s an excellent road trip flick.

  6. When I read Jerry’s comment on book I immediately thought of that movie. It was one of those that stays with you — especially if you are a girl!

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