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Michael Chabon on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

November 2, 2013

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I recently recommended Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to a friend of mine. She later texted me to say thanks for making her cry on an airplane in front of strangers. That got me thinking about how much I liked that book and I started listening to podcasts discussing it and McCarthy’s other work (I’m currently in the middle of Outer Dark). I read The Road in 2007, when I was writing reviews of everything I read but before this blog. Here’s my review of the book from then:

The world is on fire. Almost everything is dead. Grey ash rains from the sky, coats everything. Nobody has seen the sun for years. Murderers, thieves, cannibals and cults comprise most of what is left for humanity. A man and his emaciated son push their wobbly-wheeled grocery cart across this landscape, along a road to nowhere, heading for the coast because it’s got to be better than where they are now.

It sounds a little like every other post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel. Not a fan of sci-fi myself, I probably would have skipped it had my friend Natalie not recommended it and had I not been so impressed with McCarthy’s other work. But The Road isn’t science fiction. Unlike other post-apocalyptic visions, there are no futuristic spaceships or laser guns. It is our world, and the clarity and realism with which McCarthy paints it makes it all the more frightening. Everything that happens seems very real and very possible. It could be a few years from now.

I couldn’t put this book down for the strength of the story and the intensity of the plot, but on more than one occasion I had to put it down because I’d just read something so horrific that I had to let my mind digest it. But unlike a horror novelist who relishes in describing the terrors, McCarthy gives us just a glimpse. Then, like the characters in the story, we look away and run, with a snapshot burned into our brains.

As with his other books, McCarthy’s style is minimalist, sharp, hard-hitting and fantastic.* The overarching theme of good vs. evil is always present, but there’s a newer, more pure version of good in the boy. The boy doesn’t yet understand the paradox of good men who sometimes must resort to bad things. He represents a goodness that may be innocent and naïve but is unwavering and, in this book, is where the hope for humanity lay.

McCarthy has said this is his most personal book. That’s easy to believe. With all the horror and doomsday scenarios, it’s really about the relationship between a father and his son. McCarthy’s ability to effortlessly infuse small, personal moments with epic themes is what makes his novels, particularly this one, so powerful.

I bought this book for several people as Christmas gifts this year. It was my favorite book that I read in 2007.

* Reading this line again made me laugh. This was before I’d read Suttree or Blood Meridian.

 

I recently came across Michael Chabon’s review of the novel. In his last paragraph, her perfectly sums up how it made me feel at the time, though he articulates it much better than I did.

What emerges most powerfully as one reads The Road is not a prognosticatory or satirical warning about the future, or a timeless parable of a father’s devotion to his son, or yet another McCarthyesque examination of the violent underpinnings of all social intercourse and the indifference of the cosmic jaw to the bloody morsel of humanity. The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears. The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with. The fear of one day being obliged for your child’s own good, for his peace and comfort, to do violence to him or even end his life. And, above all, the fear of knowing—as every parent fears—that you have left your children a world more damaged, more poisoned, more base and violent and cheerless and toxic, more doomed, than the one you inherited. It is in the audacity and single-mindedness with which The Road extends the metaphor of a father’s guilt and heartbreak over abandoning his son to shift for himself in a ruined, friendless world that The Road finds its great power to move and horrify the reader.

I didn’t have any any kids at the time, but my wife and I were talking about it, and so the novel really struck a chord with me as a father to-be. I have another copy of The Road on the way and plan to give it a second read. I’m curious to see what I think now that I do have a kid.

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