January 1, 2013

Review: "The Road" By Cormac McCarthy

I just finished rereading this spare, but intensely powerful, little book.  There's an almost intoxicating quality to the writing of Cormac McCarthy, and The Road is an excellent example of his mastery of the craft.  I swear that there is simply not one extraneous word, and that his brief--almost painfully brief--prose somehow majestically morphs into an elegy that becomes a song of sorrow about the last vestiges of human existence on a shattered Earth. 

The Road is both relentlessly sad and horrifying as the reader follows the struggles of the 'man' and the 'boy' as they slowly journey on the road across the ash-covered and tortured landscape.  But as painful as this book is to read, it is also at the same time the story of a beautiful love between a father and his son.

The Road is, at some level I think, a retelling of the Myth of Prometheus.  Prometheus, as you may recall, was the Titan that created humankind from clay and then gifted them with fire.  For defying Zeus and providing humans with fire, he was chained to a mountain-top where each day an eagle swooped down and devoured his liver.  In The Road, the man and boy travel down the road trying to be the "good guys" and "carrying the fire" in a world that has obviously been, and continues to be, brutally ravaged by fire (whether it was by nuclear holocaust, an asteroid strike, or environmental catastrophe is not made clear, nor is it particularly relevant).

In my opinion, McCarthy's prose in The Road rises to the level of the apocalyptic poetic visions of William Blake, William Wordsworth, or even T.S. Eliot, and is richly loaded with allegory, metaphor, and symbology.  And while The Road is grim, dark, and utterly bleak, it is entirely consistent with much of the rest of McCarthy's oeuvre.  Like many of McCarthy's earlier works, The Road is the story of an epic journey and the relationship between a father and son (or older man and younger man).  Think about, for example, Blood Meridian ("The Judge" and "The Kid"); No Country for Old Men (the Sheriff and his Uncle); and then each of the books in The Border Trilogy, and some of his earlier "Appalachian" works like The Orchard Keeper, Suttree, and Outer Dark.

Some how, some way, McCarthy, while exploring the dark side of humanity in his fiction also always manages to find the spark of goodness in some of his characters--and yet Hope always remains an elusive and sketchy notion.  For me, what makes McCarthy's vision of Hell so goddamned terrifying is that there is a palpable sense of doubt in the validity of Hope and Grace in his fiction.  In The Road it is the 'glimmer' of Hope that carries the scent of salvation and keeps the reader going page after page, paragraph after paragraph, and spare sentence after spare sentence. 

When you read Cormac McCarthy you quickly come to realize that really bad things can happen to decent people and that walking 'the road' of life is a difficult proposition at best. Tough stuff to read, but oh so worth it.


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