April 16, 2007

The Road

***Update: 2007 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction***

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Finished on 3/27/07
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
~ Albert Einstein

Book Description:

A searing, postapocalyptic [sic] novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

This is not a cheerful book. It is probably the grimmest book I’ve ever read. And one of the most difficult to review. When I finished reading the final page, I quickly decided I didn’t like the book. It was overwhelmingly bleak and depressing (and far too plausible). Yet, in the days following, my thoughts returned to the story, sifting through the psychological detritus that continued to linger, debating structure and style with my husband (who read and loved the novel), and ultimately changing my view and final rating.

As we discussed the book, I told my husband that part of my initial distaste was simply due to its depressing nature. However, The Book Thief was also sad and depressing and bleak, and yet it’s one of my favorite books. I’m not sure why I’ve changed my opinion, but I’ve come to the conclusion that The Road is a beautifully crafted story, rich in texture and depth, and one that deserves a second reading. Perhaps I was too preoccupied trying to sort out all the missing plot points (What caused the nuclear war? Which coastline were they traveling toward? What are their names?!), none of which are of great importance after all, as the story represents every man, every child, and every nation.

This is a fairly short novel, easily read in a day or two. The dialogue is quite sparse, as though the boy and his father were conserving all their strength just to put one foot in front of the other, not expending any extra energy toward conversation. Perhaps the brevity of their discussions is symbolic of the stark, barren environment. Or, maybe, after traveling together for several years in such desolate surroundings, it was no longer necessary to communicate in a sophisticated language. While anthropologists and linguists believe that language has evolved from primitive grunts and gestures into a powerful and sophisticated tool, McCarthy presents a bleak vision in which that evolution has now been reversed: The journey down the ruined road mirrors -- and is mirrored by -- the characters' linguistic descent; it's a narrative lacking in complex dialogue, one in which mumbles, nods, and one-word utterances are all that is needed and perhaps all that the characters can manage. McCarthy forces us to consider the painful likelihood that, when the world finally blinks out, the last remaining man will simply grunt and moan as the end comes, because that is the only response of which he is capable.

I don't have any quotes to include here (the narrative is so tight, every passage is a spoiler), but I'd like to share the following review by one of my favorite authors, Dennis Lehane:

Cormac McCarthy sets his new novel, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic blight of gray skies that drizzle ash, a world in which all matter of wildlife is extinct, starvation is not only prevalent but nearly all-encompassing, and marauding bands of cannibals roam the environment with pieces of human flesh stuck between their teeth. If this sounds oppressive and dispiriting, it is. McCarthy may have just set to paper the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war, and in this recent age of relentless saber-rattling by the global powers, it's not much of a leap to feel his vision could be not far off the mark nor, sadly, right around the corner. Stealing across this horrific (and that's the only word for it) landscape are an unnamed man and his emaciated son, a boy probably around the age of ten. It is the love the father feels for his son, a love as deep and acute as his grief, that could surprise readers of McCarthy's previous work. McCarthy's Gnostic impressions of mankind have left very little place for love. In fact that greatest love affair in any of his novels, I would argue, occurs between the Billy Parham and the wolf in The Crossing. But here the love of a desperate father for his sickly son transcends all else. McCarthy has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries. In The Road, those batteries are almost out--the entire world is, quite literally, dying--so the final affirmation of hope in the novel's closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father's (and McCarthy's) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place, the oddest of all things: faith.

This is a book I’d like to own and read again. I guess that B&N employee discount will come in handy after all.


  1. Les,
    I am glad that you came around some on the book. It is a bleak and depressing book, but it is an amazing job of writing. I have been able to handsell it to a few of my favorite customers, but I was worried that it was a book that would go relatively undiscovered despite great reviews. I was amazed that Oprah picked it as her book club choice, but I am glad that it will see a wider audience.


  2. I just started this. I'll let you know how I liked it when I'm done.

  3. Lee - Yah, I did come around after a few days. I just couldn't stop thinking about the book and how it was affecting me. I suspect it'll be a hot-seller now that Queen Oprah has chosen it. I don't really care for her, but I'll be anxious to see McCarthy's interview.

    Can you say, "Pulitzer Prize Winner"? This is one to be taught and one that will probably become part of the great literary works of our time.

  4. I've gone back and forth about even reading this book. Your review makes me think I might actually pick it up and read it.

  5. I had some of the same reaction. As I was reading I didn't know how I felt about it, and while I don't think I ever completely disliked it, I was overcome by the grimness at times. Overall, I thought it was quite stunning. Beautifully, tightly written and definitely worth a second read. Lovely review, as always, Les!

  6. Les, you might be interested to know it won the month long contest held by the online magazine, The Morning News. You can read the comments here:

  7. Thanks for the link, Booklogged. I especially enjoyed reading Jessica Francis Kane's remarks. This book won't let go of me. I've trolled the web for everything I can find written about it. Truly remarkable.

  8. Joy - I want to say enjoy, but it's not really that sort of book. I'll be interested in your opinion.

  9. Katya - I'm flattered. Thank you. I hope you aren't disappointed.

  10. Estella/Andi - Thanks! Now I need to go back and read your review -- somehow I missed it. I'm also looking forward to Heather's review for Estella's Revenge. OK, I just found your's. I can't believe I didn't cry when I read the book. What's wrong with me?!

  11. I had many of the same thoughts as you. I told my husband several times during the reading of this novel that I hated it. Then when I finished, it simply would not go away.

    In the end I gave it (4/5) too.

  12. I usually avoid Oprah books like the plague, but your review has me intrigued.

  13. I don't get a chance to read much (or any) non law books but your description has me quite intrigued. I've added it to my list to read for the summer. It will be a nice change of pace to read some good writing, aside from your blog of course =).

    PS congrats on your new job!

  14. Amy - I wonder how many others felt the way we did. I didn't exactly hate it while I was reading, but I kept feeling like something was missing. It's definitely a book that won't let go! I'll read it again later this year after some time has passed. It'll be nice to read it more for the beauty of the language rather than plot. Thanks for the comment. I'm off to read your review.

    SuziQ - I've read a few of Oprah's picks and can't say that I've always been displeased. This is certainly not typical of her books, in spite of the depressing theme, and I'm looking forward to seeing McCarthy's interview. I hope someone gives me a heads-up, since I never watch the show.

    Cami!!! I've been thinking about you and Chad lately (as I've been adding more and more recipes to my food blog). Thanks for the comment. I think you and Chad would both like this book. Rod certainly did. Probably even more than I did. I truly believe it'll become a classic and wind up on a lot of high school reading lists. Speaking of potential classics, you have to read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak! Another great book for your summertime reading. :)

    Thanks for the blog compliment and the congrats on my new job (which, of course, I love!).

    So when are you coming home for a visit??? Nebraska's almost as much fun as Africa. ;)

  15. Anonymous4:32 PM

    I just finished The Road this weekend and I must say I enjoyed it. I didn't really expect to. I know that sounds kind of strange, but I found love and hope in it.
    Great review.

  16. Kristy - I enjoyed reading your review, too. Looks like you rated yours a smidge higher than mine. I know you said you're not interested in "Westerns," but I think you might like All the Pretty Horses. It's a beautifully evocative book and I look forward to reading the others in the trilogy.

  17. This is next on my list! Thanks for the review!

  18. Anonymous8:08 PM

    Another reason to read this book! I did finally buy it!

  19. I've enjoyed reading your honest review. Thanks.

  20. Anonymous10:40 AM

    What a great review Les! I enjoyed hearing how your initial feelings towards the book changed, etc. That's happened to me with a few books. This one is going on the list.

  21. Anonymous12:20 PM

    I loved the book. I found love and hope in it. Great review.

  22. Lisa - I'm looking forward to McCarthy's interview with Oprah, although I suspect she'll pat herself on the back for picking a Pulitzer Prize winner before it actually won. ;)

    Danielle - I need to buy a copy. The one I read was from the library. This is one I want to own. Hmm, maybe I can quickly track down a first edition at work...

    Tara - Thank you.

    Iliana - Thanks so much. Isn't it funny how some books grow on you long after you've read the final pages. I wonder why that is? I look forward to your thoughts on The Road when you get to it.

  23. Kristy - Thanks. It's quite a remarkable book, isn't it? Definitely one to read again at a later date.

  24. Anonymous4:41 PM

    I'm tempted to read All the Pretty Horses now that I've given McCarthy a chance. Another book to add to my TBR list. LOL.

  25. Kristy - I really enjoyed All the Pretty Horses. It's been a few years, but as I recall, it was beautifully written.


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