Monday, May 12, 2008

Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Remind me not to start anything by Cormac McCarthy unless I have time set aside to finish it. I started watching No Country for Old Men thinking I would organize papers and grade for completeness while watching it ... thirty minutes into it I put the stack of papers aside, untouched, and stayed up way too late finishing the movie. Then, because I wanted to know more about the writer McCarthy rather than the filmmakers the Coen Bros., I picked up The Road from the SPU library, and had three months to read it. Saturday morning I picked it up as we were going out to ride a railroad in Snoqualmie. Saturday night I was halfway through its 300 pages. Last night I finished it. (And I still made headway on reviewing the Honors Projects this weekend too!) So there's something about McCarthy I find entirely engrossing. It helps that The Road is written in sections each about a page long or less, with lots of white space.

It also helps that it's a story of a journey, with the unexpected cropping up on every side. In this case, it's set in a dead world, one obliterated and burned by nuclear holocaust, where you can walk days without seeing another human (and that's a good thing given the state of most other humans), and where grass, birds, trees, are all dead. A father and son are traveling south to survive as winter comes on.

I don't want to say too much about what happens, because not knowing is a huge driver in this book. Is McCarthy a nihilist? I can understand thinking so. But I don't think so. He knows better than anyone else the potential for pragmatic cruelty that hides in the heart of everyone. Trust and compassion are indeed liabilities in his burnt-out shell of a world. But the love between the father and son gives this another dimension, embossed into the printed despair.

What surprised me was the number of references to cosmology, veiled to be sure, but lots of talk about the indifference of the universe, the image of embers dying out in the cold void, of the earth spinning around its axis oblivious to the suffering on it, to the vast expanse of space ... all issues I've touched on in my Eight Days narrative. The father was well-educated and struggles with the idea of God. In that kind of world, how could you not struggle with it? But then he watches his boy sleeping and checks his heartbeat (which parent among us hasn't done that at least once?) just for the reassuring nature of the boy's life.

In a world where the only thing left alive to eat is other people, and where only two bullets are left in the pistol they carry, that father-son bond is profoundly affecting and wrenching.

I do think the scale of the disaster is a bit much. Even if the sun were blocked by nuclear holocaust, I really think there would be more things alive eight years after the event. After reading The World Without Us, which is about how nature rebounds, and knowing what I've seen in different contexts, I really think something would live. But scientific accuracy is not the point of this novel, the question of how to live in a world where everything else is dead, that is the question.

And of course, the boy has golden hair, just like my Sam, and is about seven or eight years old, so you can imagine I was personally involved in the story.

The overall effect wrings you out. This is an elegaic novel. The first movie that comes to mind is Saving Private Ryan, with about 300% less hope. But there IS some hope, as long as there's love there is hope, and that's what this is about -- not about war or survival or ecological disaster, but about love and hope tested to the breaking point. If you can take it, read it. Just be sure to set aside two days first.

1 comment:

Deanna said...

From Fox News' 411 gossip column:
Miramax is faring very well under the stewardship of Daniel Battsek, the two year old Weinstein Company has a couple of surprises getting ready for the fall. Tops on the list may be John Hillcoat’s adaptation of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. This post-nuclear apocalypse novel is a must read —absolutely McCarthy’s best ever. Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron star in the film.