At this point, I don’t know if it does any good to anyone for me to throw in my two cents regarding Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel The Road. This book won all sorts of awards and critical praise, topped The Believer‘s 2006 readers’ poll, and even became an Oprah’s Book Club selection. In fact, Cormac McCarthy gave his first ever television interview last month on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I actually watched the damn thing. I was in the hospital; my daughter had just been born. Anyway, like I was saying, after the publication of The Road, everyone in the field of arts and letters and criticism seems to have simultaneously decided to confer “living master” status on Mr. McCarthy, most noting that he is an American writer. This is something we’re desperate for in American literature–masters of the art. And, if you cannot tell already, I have a somewhat cynical attitude toward this desperation, and a wary if not pessimistic approach to anything so unanimously lauded. So when my mother-in-law gave me a copy of The Road as a belated birthday gift–only a few days after the Oprah interview, in fact–I felt a mixture of intrigue and hesitation. I was reading The Children’s Hospital at the time (#3 on The Believer list, incidentally) which gave me some time and distance from the Oprah interview and some of the hype. When I finally finished The Children’s Hospital, I gave myself a little more distance, reading a few Faulkner short stories and a few magazine articles. Finally, I picked up The Road; I read about half of it in one sitting on a Friday night, finishing the rest of it over that weekend. I had to slow down in the end, because I knew that this book was a tragedy; I knew that (more) bad things were going to happen, and I loved the little boy and the man–the protagonists of the novel–and simply put, I put off reading as a way of putting off their deaths (I did the same with the end of The Children’s Hospital; also, just to get it out of the way, both novels are post-apocalyptic. Done with comparisons).
The premise of The Road will remind you of any number of other post-apocalyptic stories you’ve read or seen: the world is over and everything has gone to shit. However, McCarthy is unrelenting in his refusal to provide an explanation or even description for the epic disaster that precedes the events of the novel. Where most stories in the end-of-the-world genre delight in some sort of mythology, The Road eschews any fantastic back story. Instead, we get fragments, glimpses, the briefest hints. The overall effect of this lack of a reason is a stunning, awesome loneliness. This is an abandoned world, desolate, dead, cold, covered in ash. Nothing can live. Besides, the real story of The Road is the touching relationship between a nameless father and son. These are “the good guys” who “carry the fire”–this is the only mythology of the novel, the father’s only lessons to the son. The pair travels south, although their purpose is simply to stay alive, to not die. A large amount of the text is devoted to the simple day-to-day scavenging that is necessary to live, with occasional encounters with other living people being rare, unexpected, and ultimately meaningless. In a world where living people equal a good source of protein, no one can really help these two; all other people are threats–”the bad guys.” And as the novel progresses, the young boy begins to realize that the world is not so simple, that there may not be such a thing as “good guys” and “bad guys.”
The bond between the father and son, so beautifully expressed in McCarthy’s spartan prose, genuinely moved me. Their relationship propels a narrative absent of all but the dimmest kernel of hope; indeed, it doesn’t seem like there can be any future for these two at all in a world where nothing–no plants, no animals–can live. Which brings me to the last few pages of the book. I have a problem with this. First, I guess I should give a spoiler warning. Honestly, I believe that you can know the end of the book and not have it spoiled for you, but in the interest of etiquette: SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! There. May we continue?
So yes, from the beginning of this book, it’s evident that either the father or the boy or both will die by the end of the book. And yes, the father does die, in a scene so moving that I actually cried. Unbelievably, however, McCarthy cops out in the last few pages of the book, and provides a deus ex machina in the form of a loving surrogate family to protect the boy. I mean, the new father figure comes literally out of nowhere and more or less says: “Okay, you’ll be safe now. Don’t worry readers, the kid is gonna make it!” This improbable resolution seems to contradict the 283 pages or so of the novel that preceded it. It seems far more likely in the world and vision that McCarthy crafted that the boy would be left alone to fend for himself. It’s almost as if McCarthy loved the boy too much to see him on his own, unattended to. And of course, a lot of his readers probably felt the same way–I certainly did. I really did. I wanted to see that kid make it, but at the same time the logic of the narrative does not support the ending that McCarthy wrote. Still, this really is a fantastic book–perhaps a bit overrated, but excellent nonetheless. Highly recommended.