Cormac McCarthy could once boast with a rueful pride that his novels sold, not in the thousands, but in the hundreds. Those days are long behind him. The acclaim of critics and the relentless promotion by his publishers have transformed this reclusive craftsman into a literary icon, unblushingly compared to Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Still, it is somewhat surprising to learn that Oprah Winfrey has selected McCarthy’s latest novel for her Book Club pick. Her doing so will ensure McCarthy a larger audience then he has ever enjoyed before. It will be interesting to see what this audience makes of him.
The Road, McCarthy’s 10th novel, is set in a post-apocalyptic America. A father and his young son walk endlessly through a landscape of blackened forms and charred bodies “that cauterized terrain,” in McCarthy’s phrase, that lies somewhere between the world of Samuel Beckett and Stephen King. It’s a bleak journey, and gets bleaker as we go. A silent blasted earth, a sunless sky, corpses strewn about, “shriveled and drawn like latter day bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth.” But the dead are welcome company compared to the living, who are diseased, demented, or murderous. Father and son have only each other, and their love for, and trust in, one another seems to be the only state of grace left on this eclipsed earth.
The bonds between the two are continually tested and strained during their journey, which is at times an exhausting trek and at others a panicked flight. The father mourns a past that is forever gone, while the son fears a future he cannot imagine. Frightened, pursued, exhausted, they together endure an unendurable present. It is to McCarthy’s credit that he shows that both father and son must survive as moral, not just physical beings. By making the bond between father and son the fulcrum of his novel, McCarthy succeeds in lifting the narrative above the merely horrifying and macabre.
For all its bleakness, The Road surprisingly ends on a note of hope. Since we are in McCarthy country, the hope is a tenuous one, but it is there nonetheless. Given the journey they have just been through, most readers will probably be grateful.
McCarthy has always had his devoted followers. He also has his detractors, who find his diction pretentious, his grammar atrocious (all those incomplete sentences), and his dialogue a tone-deaf imitation of Hemingway’s. There’s something to these criticisms, as anyone will discover by opening The Road and reading a page or two at random. But in the actual experience of reading the novel from the beginning, these flaws seem much less important. The Road ultimately overcomes its idiosyncrasies, just as it survives the inflated claims of its publicists. This book is probably not “destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece,” but it is his finest story since Blood Meridian (1985) and with all its flaws and virtues, embodies the lifework of an exceptional writer.
John Siscoe owns and operates Globe Books in Pioneer Square.
Review by JOHN SISCOE, Contributing Writer
Book: The Road By Cormac McCarthy, Vintage Books, 2006, Hardcover, 304 pages, $14.95