The Road by Cormac McCarthy – review

Fuck me.

I went down to the Continuum 6 convention in Melbourne recently and, bizarrely, didn’t buy any books while I was there. I had every intention of picking up a couple in the dealer’s room, but just didn’t get the chance. At the airport to head home again I needed something to read, especially as we had an hour delay due to bad weather in Sydney. In the newsagent I spotted The Road by Cormac McCarthy and grabbed that, based on the general hype about it. I really didn’t know much about it. I finished reading it last night.

Like I said at the beginning, fuck me.

The Road is an outstanding book. It’s powerful, brutal, bleak, confronting, brilliant. And I’m not sure I ever want to read it again. The premise is as simple and spare as everything else about the novel: a father and son, “each the other’s world entire”, are travelling along a road after a cataclysmic event has reduced the world to monochrome and ash. The man and his son, never given names, are heading south as they can’t survive another winter in their original location, wherever that might have been. We don’t know what horror destroyed the world, though the implication is a nuclear holocaust; “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”

The man and his son are struggling to survive, constantly starving, constantly freezing, constantly on the lookout for roving bands of “bad guys” that have been driven to madness and cannibalism. The man tells his son that they’re the “good guys”, they don’t eat people, they don’t steal or kill and they’re trying to find other good guys.

The RoadIn a few sparse flashbacks we learn a little of their history, the mother unable to cope with the broken world kills herself, the man and the boy head off with a pistol loaded with two bullets, for attackers or for them, depending on circumstance. The child knows nothing of the world before, born into this post-apocalyptic wasteland. The father entertains memories of the world before the catastrophe but quickly blots out his reminiscences as “each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins”.

They have with them a shopping cart containing all their possessions, which amount to little more than a few blankets and tins of food they scavenge along the way. They regularly search houses and stores they come across, desperate for food and water, constantly aware of the possibility of attack, always on the brink of death. Everywhere is burnt and ruined, the world around them metaphor for their future; “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”

The simple truth is that the man and his son are surviving. Nothing more than that. The man coughs blood, knowing he won’t be there forever even while telling the boy that he’ll never leave him. He’s teaching the boy how to survive and telling him that they “carry the fire” and must continue to do so.

Their experiences along the road are brutal and McCarthy doesn’t shy away from the horror, but there are regular moments of light and hope in the grey and ashen world. The exploration of a father’s love for his son and the human spirit are sublime.

The writing is incredible, for the most part reading more like poetry than prose. No scene or section is more than a few paragraphs long. The description is spare to the point of clinical detachment in places, but the emotional content and evocation are remarkable. There’s virtually no punctuation, no quotes for dialogue. This works for the most part, but it became annoying when words like won’t and don’t were spelled wont and dont, while things like I’d and he’d retained their apostrophes. On occasion this was messed up in the book and it tripped up the story. The lack of dialogue tags also made some longer conversations a little hard to follow. But the device largely worked adding to the open bleakness of the novel as a whole. The conclusion of the book is a bit fast and bright to be truly convincing and I felt mildly let down by the last three or four pages, but that’s a small gripe.

This is an astounding achievement in writing and storytelling. An incredible book that I can’t recommend highly enough, though with the warning that it’s not for the faint hearted or easily upset reader. I’m aware that my own personal situation made the ending particularly poignant, but this is the only book I can remember that made me cry. It is brilliant.


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9 thoughts on “The Road by Cormac McCarthy – review

  1. There are a handful of things that are left unexplained that do make you wonder, but given the lack of exposition on anything that happened before, I just accepted that.

  2. Great review, and really it’s an amazing book. I know there was a lot of horror in it but it was still beautiful and hopeful. That said, I’m not sure I’d read it again, either.

  3. The movie was dead boring and gave no hope at all, in my opinion. Certainly wouldn’t watch it again…ever. So, after reading your book review I find myself wondering if I would have enjoyed the book any better. The book is mostly always better than the movie, but still…not sure if I want to take the gamble.

    But it’s brilliant when something touches you enough to bring tears, isn’t it? I love it when that happens. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the book.

  4. Apparently the film is quite faithful to the book. If you didn’t like one, you’ll probably not like the other.

  5. Amen, brother 🙂 The Road is bleak as fuck, but amazing. It’s right up there with Riddley Walker, it’s not necessarily an easy read with a happy ending but it’s a Very Good Book. And the movie is 99% faithful to the book, a great adaptation.

  6. Very true. I’m still having the occasional flashback. There’s no greater proof of a VGB than that.

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