Tom's Reviews > The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
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's review
May 06, 07

bookshelves: fiction, scifi-fantasy
Read in April, 2007

Review for Chimes (May 11, 2007)

“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 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.”

In his new novel “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy portrays the journey of a father and son across a bleak, post-apocalyptic world in stark, muscular prose. The plot, structure, style, characters and dialogue are all barren, echoing the landscape through which the unnamed characters traverse.

McCarthy never explains why or how the world is barren and dead. All we know is that a father and son are pushing their shopping cart of canned food, a map, a tarp and a loaded pistol down empty roads, seeking the coast or a warmer climate for winter. The rest of the world, it seems, has either reverted to cannibalism or died.

The structure of the book reinforces its bleak tone. Its 240 pages (in large font, mind you) are composed not of chapters, but of small narrative or descriptive nuggets that are never more than one page long. The sentences, too, are short, punchy and at times lyrical, reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway. This style, like Hemingway’s, is intensely effective for a short story or novella – just read “The Old Man and the Sea” sometime – but halfway through the book, the short sentences lose their impact and become tiresome.

But McCarthy goes beyond Hemingway at times and ends up trying too hard. For example, in the following passage, the son spots a corpse in the road (they seem to appear nearly every other page) and asks his father about it:

Who is it? said the boy.
I don’t know. Who is anybody?

“All horror all the time” seems to be McCarthy’s mantra, and while post-apocalyptic literature certainly requires the theme of hopelessness, it need not dominate the work like it does in “The Road.” For example, Samuel Beckett’s play “Endgame” is equally bleak, yet one laughs at its absurdity through the whole production. Instead, McCarthy over-emphasizes the darkness, making the novel predictable and boring on occasion.

Despite these faults, the general critical response to “The Road” has been positive. In the last three weeks, it won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

While the Pulitzers aren’t perfect in their selections (e.g. “Gilead”), their praise of “The Road” is warranted. Digging beneath the structure, style and tone, one finds at the core of the novel the classic father-son story of tension of love, frustration and the inability to communicate.

Another way to see the father-son relationship is as an allegory. The ever-cautious father represents Survival. He frequently threatens, steals from and sometimes even kills other people to save his son and himself. The son, contrarily, represents Compassion. He often pesters his father to assist the ravaged, desperate people they encounter. The novel, then, becomes the inner struggle between serving oneself and serving others.

A final interpretation is to see “The Road” as an attempt to face mortality. An old, accomplished writer at the end of his life, McCarthy faces the mystery that lies beyond the grave. Perhaps the darkness of the post-apocalyptic world is the darkness of death, and the father and son are our wandering souls searching to make sense of the incomprehensible terror of the present and the rapidly fading memories of the past.

In “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy brings his audience into a grim and barren landscape through his (tiringly) stark prose, forcing them to confront the possibility of a dismal future. As a graduating senior, I hope I won’t have to relate.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Colin Dude, I'm glad somebody on this freaking website feels the same way I do about The Road. Talk about a novel losing steam halfway through. In his tiresome quest for pure, simple,structure,he abandoned all sense of structured literary style.


message 2: by Matt (new) - rated it 1 star

Matt I agree. I feel as if the reviewers that enjoyed this book were taken in by the facade of McCarthy's affected prose. I'd wager that a second read would have them all printing retractions.


Angela Paquin On the whole, your review was a good review.
I guess this book touches nerves with parents or aunts/uncles of small children and that's why it's so haunting for most people. It's not so much about the prose (although I liked it) as it is about the story itself.

Do we have to know why the world is barren and dead? Is that really necessary? There doesn't have to be a "backstory" for our two characters... just focus on the present. Leave something to our imagination.

I do agree with your allegory. You are more adept in narrowing it down to Survival and Compassion. (I was thinking head vs heart - same thing - except maybe I'm using MS Word too much.)

Word of advice, from the dawn of time, everyone points to Hemingway when it comes to short prose. Can we stop with the cliches? Yawn. Someone else posted that McCarthy is closer to Faulkner and I agree more with that statement. As I Lay Dying is certainly a distant cousin. I may have to read that again.

I think McCarthy is far more precise. It's his lyrical exactness that most would find boring. But it's not this "affection" that kept me glued. It was the relationship of the father and son.

I read Child of God before I read this and that was a great McCarthy warmup. I'm glad I did that. The prose was more alive in that world... I could see the slight change thanks to that.

















message 4: by Plum (last edited Nov 02, 2007 01:53AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Plum Yes, I had little time and affection for this very burnt offering - for pretty much the same reasons as you've outlined here in your review, Tom. McCarthy always seems to write with one eye fixed firmly on the mirror, preening and primping his absurdly affected prose. Finding All the Pretty Horses to be written in similarly posturing vein, I'm afraid I'm definitely not a McCarthy fan.


Allycks Good review except for the final paragraph, or the last line. What exactly does it matter if anyone "will have to relate"? The Road may not be a masterpiece, and few would argue that it's not overwraught at times, but the book delivers because it forges exactly that, a waking nightmare, ten tons of dread and barely an ounce of hope. That's the essence of it. Some may not much appreciate Picasso's "Guernica" but you'd probably laugh if their reasoning was that they hope to never be caught in a fascist massacre.


Aaron I too was relieved to find someone who did not enjoy this book and for the same reasons that I didn't. I agree it was tiresome, boring, predictable and overly-simplistic. The prose is beautiful, but your point that it is best used in a short story or novella is a good one.


Brad I disagreed with you, Tom. But I have also disagreed with most positive reviews of this story. Even so, I liked your review very much. You were critical without being insulting of other readers, and you made some interesting points. Thank you for actually engaging in effective rhetoric rather than spewing fallacy. And, for the record, I did like the book.


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