The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'The Road'

Giving the ‘Art’ section a rest, and doing a book review instead.

I watched the film of ‘The Road’ a couple of years ago, before reading the book by Cormac McCarthy.  I knew it was bleak but admit that I wasn’t prepared for how unrelentingly bleak it was.  Still, I kept thinking I wanted to read the book.  And finally did, a couple of months ago.  Despite knowing the story, I was still looking forward to reading it.

A father and his young son walk alone through burned America, heading slowly for the coast.  Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind.  They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the men who stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.

Cormac McCarthy is not known for writing upbeat, happy stories; instead, isolation and violence are the words that spring to mind.  He doesn’t use much in the way of punctuation.  There are no quotation marks in the book so it isn’t immediately obvious what is direct speech; you'd think it would make for a challenging read, but I found it easy to keep track of who was saying what.

The story isn’t laid out traditionally in that there is no beginning, middle and end.  Neither are any of the characters named.  For me, the book seemed more like diary entries, written by the father.  He remembers the world before the unnamed disaster struck.  Sometimes we get glimpses into his past.  The boy was born into the devastated world; he knows nothing but their bleak existence.  We follow them as they traverse the road, making their way to the coast in the hopes of finding something, anything more than what they’re experiencing.

The world that McCarthy has created is a frightening one, in that it is a world that could, one day, come to be.  Everything that’s not already dead is dying, covered by choking ash.  There seem to be no animals; the few humans that there are, are either little more than dead people walking or cannibals.  

On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn.  Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side.  Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind.  A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned.  Farther along were billboards advertising motels.  Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.

This isn’t a story about the end of the world or life in a devastated one.  It is the story of a father and son, the mutual love and, also, dependence between parent and child.  It is about the strength of their bond in a world where it would be just as easy to give up, to abandon, to betray.  For a bottle of water; a can of food.  The father may have no hope left for himself, but he refuses to give up; he carries on for the sake of his son.  It could be said that his son is, literally, his reason for living, for surviving.

He knew only that the child was his warrant.  He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

Although the boy has been raised in this dying world, his father has instilled values in him.  Ironically, it is the boy who becomes the father’s conscience, questioning when the man ignores those in need, when he refuses to share their meagre supplies.

Despite the desolation of the story and sparseness of style, McCarthy still makes magic with his use of words.

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable.  A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.  Often he had to get up.  No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees.  He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings.  An old chronicle.  To seek out the upright.  No fall but preceded by a declination.  He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return.  Eyes closed, arms oaring.  Upright to what?  Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix.  To which he and the stars were common satellite.  Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

I found the menace they faced more overt in the film, whereas in the book, while still there, it creeps along, just out of sight.  The fear that something might be about to happen to them is palpable even when nothing awful is in sight.  It is a far from happy story.  Yet, despite the harrowing subject, there are moments that uplift, between the father and son.  In my opinion, the book is well worth the emotional ride.  McCarthy’s depiction of the parent/child bond in such an awful setting elevates it above the norm.  He has also given the reader – this reader anyway – food for thought: is there any point in carrying on when there is nothing; no hope, no promise of a better life.  I’d like to say ‘yes’ … but it’s one of those situations – until you’re living it, who truly knows what they’ll do?