A.J.'s Reviews > The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
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Aug 19, 09

it was ok
bookshelves: fiction
Read in August, 2009

Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road represents a kind of rare fusion of popularity and literary acclaim. While strictly speaking it is not genre fiction, its setting and descriptive landscape lends itself to convention but with a far more literary tone. The kind of reader that likes to see superheroes and scary monsters taken seriously by the literary establishment has reason to embrace this book as a useful step in the right direction (and can place the forthcoming oscar bait film next to the William Faulkner-scripted The Big Sleep on the 'real writers who do genre fiction' shelf). Oprah's Book Club seal of approval no doubt aided in the success and proliferation of the novel, and allied with a readership of those who like to read what's popular (me, often to my dismay) and those who like to read what passes for intelligent fiction, arriving at an audience of mostly satisfied customers is not hard to imagine.

The novel has its merits, of that there's no doubt. Watching James Wood furiously masturbate for 5,000 words is convincing enough that some level of coffee table discussion can be gleaned from this book. Stylistically Cormac isn't like much on the recent market. He shuns chapter breaks and quotation marks. His dialogue is in a slow-man race with Hemingway. And he draws pictures of the cold and the dark with a distinctly cinematic eye. All told the book isn't hard to read and it's not that hard to understand, either. Carry the fire, Boy. Don't let the flame die out!

What the book misses is what a lot of so-called 'literary' fiction I read misses: A compelling story. In 1978 Stephen King wrote a novel that transformed his career––and word counts––about this very topic. In The Stand his world was whittled down by a deadly superflu with a 99.8% communicability rate. This was only a device, like McCarthy's unheralded and nondescript tragedy, to set up a battle of dark versus light, the oldest story in the book. What then is the difference between the two books? I'd argue three things. Character, plot, and about 600 pages.

McCarthy's writing style is one that had my BS meter leaking oil and steam from page one. While the book is mostly comprehensible, McCarthy is insistent on firing unearned emotions into the reader by inserting heavy handed snippets of flowery language into the text. Don't believe me? Class, turn to page 196: "Do you think your fathers are watching? That they weight you in their ledger book? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground." Note that this gem is its own section separated from what comes before and after; it is also completely irrelevant to anything going on in the story. Who has this muddled epiphany is impossible to know for sure––though there are only two guesses and one of them is a bad one––and so is what it means. The protagonist of the novel has virtually no backstory, certainly no clear motivation in the present, and by all accounts no future. He wanders southward thinking deeply and shivering against the cold and the dark. A blank page perforated by ash and congealed timelessness (It'll make sense, just give it twenty minutes). The novel is plumb full of these headscratcher moments which we lack the tools to appropriately assess. As a pattern seeking device our minds of course construe these as definitive points in the novel. Why else would they be there? But underneath the facade of depth is the hollow ring of flat characters who want little and who do very little.

King's novel was far from perfect, but in the area of Something Interesting Happening there's no contest, no line in the sand, no intelligent dissent or opposition. His invasive style inserts us into the minds of rich characters with clear motivation surrounded by a semi-supernatural conflict. The Road is a choppy and uneven story overflowing with repetition and poetry-as-emotionalism. There are infrequent moments of danger and desire, but these are so overshadowed by the humdrum of walking and eating that they're hardly worth mentioning.

As a final insult to the reader, the ending came down with American Beauty syndrome, where despite all of the horror, the ashen seas, the charred corpses, the death and carnage, we end with hope springing eternal. Nothing in 280 pages allowed for this kind of thought, but it was apparently convenient enough that McCarthy went with it. A disappointment, considering that No Country for Old Men (I'll speak to the film version as I haven't read the novel) concluded on one of the more complicated but deeply satisfying finales in recent memory. It was a pitch perfect thematic conclusion to a running dilemma throughout the film. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) relates a dream he had about his father. The scene is completely cinematic even though the camera never shows us anything but a weathered face. The pain and longing of the telling and how it resounds with everything that came before is almost palpable.

"It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin'. Never said nothin' goin' by. He just rode on past... and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin' fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. 'Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up."

Remove the final five words and you have The Road. Keep them and you have No Country for Old Men. The former is petty and unsatisfying; the latter is genius. The Road is not a bad novel, but for a pulitzer, an Oprah endorsement, and a furiously masturbating James Wood, I expected something with a little more kick and satisfaction.

Two stars. Average read, but might be worth the trouble to the curious.




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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed I think you are being too harsh in your judgments.

McCarthy's so-called "snippets of unearned emotion" is totally consistent with all his output. Even the Border Trilogy, as spare a trio of Western stories as there is, contains such "flowery prose". It's too bad you don't recognize the poet at work here.

Perhaps if you read "The Road" as an epic poem instead of a novel, you might have been able to see what he was trying to do.

To compare McCarthy and Stephen King is like comparing Dustin Hoffman and Aaron Kutscher.

The Pulitzer, like many awards, is often given to honor a complete body of work rather than the book it's tied to. I agree, some of McCarthy's other writings outshine "The Road".


A.J. Ed wrote: "I think you are being too harsh in your judgments.

McCarthy's so-called "snippets of unearned emotion" is totally consistent with all his output. Even the Border Trilogy, as spare a trio of Wes..."


Hey Ed,

I can only judge books as I experience them. I knew from the first page that Cormac wasn't my kind of writer, but even still I read his book and gave it thought as I went along. I don't think I missed what he was trying to do; I just wasn't impressed by it. I'll admit straight up that I could give two shits and an empty beer bottle about poetry. I'm a story guy through and through. If the language happens to be beautiful alongside that, so much the better.

Which brings me to King. I don't know if you read The Stand or not, but for a comparative purpose it's a perfect example. We essentially have the same story. World ends, new society emerges. Characters experience intense loneliness and battles with theodicy. As far as story is concerned I stand by my statement. Now if you don't like King, totally cool. Lot of people don't. (Hell of a lot more people do, though.) What we have here is another one of those grand opportunities to set up more ramparts and shield walls in the 'literary' vs. 'mainstream' fiction war. For my dollar I go with the guy who tells a story without all the high-horse prose meant to stir my soul while at the same time offering me stick figure characters.

But as I said in the review, Cormac's No Country was used to produce a masterpiece of a film. The language, the tone, and especially the ending were all virtually perfect. I know he's got talent, and it even shows in this book from time to time. The overall effect just did nothing for me.

-A.J.

P.S. I think you meant Ashton Kutcher. Yeah, yeah very funny. But you're right, we can't really compare McCarthy to Kutcher––he didn't even manage to score with Demi Moore after publishing his overrated scifi novel. ;)



message 3: by Ed (last edited Aug 21, 2009 12:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed A.J. wrote: "I can only judge books as I experience them. I knew from the first page that Cormac wasn't my kind of writer, but even still I read his book and gave it thought as I went along. I don't think I missed what he was trying to do; I just wasn't impressed by it...."

Got it.

I'm a story guy, too. Liked "No Country..." more than "The Road". Howsomever, I cried at times reading "The Road". Not many books move me to tears.

You're right, I don't particularly like Stephen King, which I know puts me in some kind of minority but then I don't particularly like James Patterson, Clive Cussler or David Baldacci, either. I guess I need those snippets of unearned emotion.

I don't know how I could have misspelled Ashton Kutcher's name. I'm such a fan. I am not, though, one of his 1,000,000+ followers on Twitter. In fact I'm no-one's follower on Twitter. I see Kutcher playing the father in the movie version of "The Road" with his usual emotional depth and experience, the kind he brought to "The 70s Show."

Well, what this all proves is that two people who obviously value good stories can disagree about a work or an author (McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" drove me to drink). I will now add King's "The Stand" to my TBR list and will immediately attempt to mooch it on Bookmooch.com. It's got to be much better than anything Michael Crichton ever did.

Thanks for your thoughts.


message 4: by A.J. (last edited Aug 21, 2009 07:25AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

A.J. Not a problem. Certainly plenty of room for good dispute about books. Last thing I'll mention is that with King, at least in my experience and the friends of mine who read him, is that chances are you'll either love or hate a given book. I think he's written some great novels, one utter masterpiece, and a helluva lot of terrible ones. Overall I like him as an author––he gets a terrible wrap from the literatii types but without good reason––but his more recent stuff, or so I've heard, has dropped off markedly. If you had to read ONE of his books before you die, I'd go with "IT". It's a 1000 page juggernaut, but its themes on childhood, belief, growing up, forgetting the past, etc. are some of the better articulated I've come across. It's also a great story––albeit a bit 'out there.'

-A.J.


message 5: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed A.J. wrote: "Not a problem. Certainly plenty of room for good dispute about books. Last thing I'll mention is that with King, at least in my experience and the friends of mine who read him, is that chances are ..."

Thanks. I'll add it to my TBR list and plan on packing it for one of my cross-Pacific flights.

Ed


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