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The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a 2007 Pulitzer winning novel. I finished this book a couple of days ago (ironically in one sitting on a long road trip), and I've had a chance to let it digest. I don't know if I enjoyed it - this is not a story designed to entertain - but I was certainly fascinated and moved to thought by it.
So first of all, this is not a fun book. It is a tragic exploration of a dystopian / post-apocalyptic world, documenting the struggle to move forward in the face of overwhelming hopelessness. It's not a cautionary tale, it's not really an allegory for anything, it is a straight up survival story centred around father and son, with the importance of life being the central theme.
For me, the important question The Road asks is why does the father choose to go on? Despite the fact that he is dying, that there is barely anyone left, that he and his son are always starving, he cannot bring himself to consider suicide. He cannot bring himself to consider cannibalism. Right up until the very end, when his body gives out and he cannot go any further, he is moving forward in the hope that there is something better out there, and he only ever encourages his son to do the same. How much strength did that take? How much did he value his life and the life of his son? Would you have the strength to do the same?
A lot of people comment about the writing style, and it took a few pages for me to adjust. The prose is not something I can measure against what is "traditional" - for me the prose is part of the story rather than just telling the story. There is an economy of words, even an economy of thought, which parallels the survival elements of The Road.
What really worked for me was the dialogue, and I think it represented exactly what the road was about. No unnecessary speech, no dialogue tags, not even any quotation marks to indicate that dialogue is taking place. You don't need any tags to tell who is saying what, you don't need any tags to help describe how they are saying it. The few sharp words between father and son say much more than the dialogue tags could.
The man was trying to kill us. Wasn't he.
Yes. He was.
Did you kill him?
Is that the truth?
Is that all right?
I thought you didn't want to talk?
The Road is not a book designed for entertainment, and if that is what you are looking for from a book, it is definitely not for you. Even if you aren't looking for entertainment, it is still easy to see why people have a hard time reading this. The Road challenges traditional conventions on what a story can be, and for me, it is important that authors (or any artists) are still willing to do this.
As Fantasy Book Review now has a section devoted to dystopian fiction (it is a work in progress) I felt it was about time that I finally got around to reviewing some of its finest examples. Over the coming weeks I will be adding four titles that I have long since read, loved, but have not as yet reviewed. They are The Stand by Stephen King, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Swan Song by Robert McCammon and - one that is arguably the best of them all - The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
And it is with The Road that I will begin. Cormac McCarthy's tenth novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 and was hailed as the 'the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation'. It is the story of a father and son walking alone through the ravaged landscape of a burned America to the coast.
The Road is many things, it is brilliantly-written, poetic, compelling and terrible in its beauty, but there is one thing that it certainly is not, and that is a fun read. It is, in fact, heart-breaking; playing strongly on the reader's basic human instinct to protect their young at all costs and the father’s sense of desperation, dread and isolation are almost palpable.
The book is relentlessly bleak but it is also about love and as such utterly compelling and peculiarly life-affirming. I found it to be a both inspirational and cautionary tale and rarely have I experienced such a gamut of emotions whilst reading.
At just shy of 200 pages it is a short story by todays standards, but this is due to McCarthy's sparse prose, where he wastes not a single word and achieves more - and says more - than ninety nine per cent of books four or five time the size.
You must read The Road, it is one of the finest books of the last century.
You must read The Road, it is one of the finest books of the last century.
13 positive reader review(s) for The Road
Miguel from United Kingdom
McCarthy writes in a style which holds nothing back, in a post-apocalyptic world where there simply is nothing. Very little hope in a bleak dark world. And yet the protagonist contains a glimmer of hope nestled within his son (potentially the 'fire' alluded to throughout the novel) and that is what keeps him going when all hope seems lost. In fact, it certainly becomes a recurring theme throughout the novel, the contemplation of death and suicide, with a conversation with a withered old man on the side of the road explicitly confronting this, with the best possible outcome appearing to be for humans to simply die out. The flashbacks and ponderings of the father are all too painful to him and indeed the audience as collectively we remember what life is/was like before the apocalypse. This is a life which the son will never know - no blue sea or clear skies ever again it seems and their struggle, even when it seems futile to do so is evoking and stirring to the reader, with the fathers undying love for his young son spurring him on towards a better life down south. The continuing conflict with morals regarding food and helping others appears to be created between the son (the voice of morality and even naive love and generosity) and his conflicted father (focusing on their safety and survival at all times) when faced with difficulties such as helping the old man, or a young boy. The grisly portrayals of cannibalism and decay don't just simply seem to be a smattering of dystopian conventions but a raw glimpse into this harsh world - an emphasis of the struggles to survive, not only against nature, but against other people. McCarthy is very vague in his allusions to what has caused this decaying and grey world which envelops the protagonists. He also doesn't stick to conventions in his punctuation, something which seems to make the plot more personal, especially as they aren't needed here - we know exactly when people are saying what. Though we can glimpse into the father's thoughts and his memories, we can never grasp the full extent of the damage this harrowing experience has caused the young boy as we only know about his feelings by dialogue with his father and his body language throughout. Finally, McCarthy's decision not to name the characters, and to retain a somber vagueness about them is, rather paradoxically, more moving and intimate as this evokes pity for all humans - when the struggle of these two could easily be translated to the entire human race. There could be many young boys and their fathers attempting to survive, families torn apart and individuals with little hope left in the world.10/10 (2021-09-03)
Christopher from United States
Great example of the ends we will go to for the love of our children, the hope for a child and the innocence of youth despite all adversity. We want the best for our kids and try and protect them from the worst. What do you do when you can't shield them from the worst, when human nature- the need for survival steals all other emotions and turns you into a monster? Are you still good? Are you a monster? How do you live with yourself and instill morals or a purpose when your life is survival and fear? Yet a child is still inherently good. Heavy read10/10 (2019-06-03)
Mark from UK
Unbelievably intense book. I don’t think that I have ever read a book that made me as physically tense as this one. The tension in certain moments is almost unbearable. So dark, so dire, but with a glowing love between the father and his son. You root for them, but you know that doom is waiting. And that makes the book insanely tense. Just brilliant, evoking a reaction that I have never had to a book.10/10 (2019-01-23)
Andrew from USA
A few things made me hit my "unrealistic" button. First of all, canned peaches don't last anywhere close to 10 years, nor does canned food of any type. Also, why the heck, when they are freezing and headed south to escape the cold, are they going up to the top of a high mountain where it is much colder? I guess the man was anxious to see his boyhood home, but my goodness, how many calories did they burn between the cold and the climb when they were supposedly fighting exhaustion and starvation? Then the first thing the boy does when they reach the ocean is go swimming nude. What do you think the water temperature would be in this nuclear winter destroyed world? Maybe the boy had been so cold for so long that he could no longer feel cold. For those that believe this novel is a global warming guilt trip, it does not seem plausible that the initial disaster was climate related. It had to be more like an asteroid hit or an all out nuclear war to cause that kind of mass incineration. With that being said, I still loved the novel as the fiction that it is and was very emotional toward the end. A very simple read, I am by no means a fast reader and read it all in 5 hours. The lack of punctuation did not bother me and the author's way with words is magnificent. My interpretation, for what its worth, is that God had for whatever reason forsaken this world, but he was going to give humanity another chance by choosing the beautiful, wonderful boy, the essence of innocence and good, as its new source of regeneration. The father seemed to sense there was something special and Godlike about his son and that their incredible journey against all odds was God's mission. Some of their "luck" was not luck at all, rather God's intervention. Maybe God gave them the strength to climb that mountain, maybe God preserved the canned peaches for 10+ years. Maybe the boy's nude swim in freezing water was supposed to represent some kind of baptism or anointment? In that context it does not seem as unrealistic. So despite my nit-picking, this was an extremely profound and captivating read!10/10 (2019-01-10)
Anon from UK
Beautiful and heartbreaking. The depth of emotional pain and the shadow of shattered hope and brief moments of almost pure joy made this a remarkable read. Survival at the center and love at its purest level is what captured my attention and kept me reading. I saw the movie first and knew I had to read the book. I was not disappointed. Needless to say, read it with a box of tissue close at hand.10/10 (2018-09-06)
Lisa from Canada
Difficult to read, difficult to forget, the second best post apocalyptic ever written.10/10 (2018-02-13)
Shawn from Bowmanville
I like Cormac McCarthy's work, however it's oppressive as fuck. This is the second book of his I've read (The Blood Meridian was the first) and holy shit. I mean the man is a poet, no doubt about it, but where did I put the straight edge and is the bath water hot enough yet. He is what Stephen King is afraid of writing. Personally, I love both Cormac and Steve, for very different reasons, but the older I get I find my interests tend to move toward the lighter side. Cormac is definitely darker than a sucked out hole in a tar factory and I love him for it, but you really have to be in the mood for it.10/10 (2017-10-17)
Steven from Los Angeles
Slow start. brilliant finish. This book really can do a number on you emotionally. If you cry reading books, you'll weep for this many times during the book. You tell me who else can write like this? You prob. can't because no one else has. could. or prob. ever will. Book is too good.9/10 (2013-09-19)
Xavier from Austria
Just read this book for the third time and it never fails to evoke the very strongest emotions. Love, fear, anger, hope all war with each other. What never fails to surprise me is that a book as bleak and unendingly desolate as The Road leaves me full of hope for the future. I think this is because there is immense love within each family that will hopefully ensure that each parent will do whatever they can to offer an improved life to their child. And this I hope will lead to the human race being less destructive with each new generation. I know that it was likely a super volcano that caused the environment the Man and the Boy struggled to survive in but the cause is not really relevant, and living in harmony with the planet must be achieved.10/10 (2013-04-30)
Trent from Atlanta
Quite simply, this is the most beautiful book I have ever read.10/10 (2012-03-01)
John from Detroit USA
I agree... Read this book twice consecutively. Not a big fan of fiction but like the post apocolyptic genre...This is a top 3 book for me. McCarthy wastes not one space in his prose. There are single lines that completely envelop the reader. "Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.." One of the best lines I've ever read. Beautifully written.10/10 (2012-03-01)
Mark from Scotland
It is true that this book is possibly the most bleak and depressing read ever. Saying that I read it in a few days as it had me completely enthralled. I loved every page and having a young son of my own, I connected with everything. Although the story was totally heartbreaking, the moments of love, happiness and survival made it worth while. Also I'm not much of a blubber but I cried like a baby reading this.9/10 (2012-03-01)
Josh from Australia
Some people may argue a present degree of masochism here, but I'll say this much - I enjoyed The Road. I enjoyed it thoroughly. So many dystopian fictions tie their subtext or "moral" to shoddy, ham-fisted religious messages that cheapen the value of life and experience against the specific creed it's marketing. The Road, with McCarthy's concise, moving prose tells a story that is universally human; painful, gripping, confronting and tragically beautiful. While this might be splitting hairs, John Hillcoat directed the film adaptation and I believe it was produced by Nick Wechsler, Paula Mae Schwartz and Steve Schwartz. Also, it was released in late 2009 and Hollywood producer Harvey Weintsein (to my knowledge) had nothing to do with it.10/10 (2012-03-01)
Mike from Dublin
I agree, a 10/10 book. I first came across Cormac McCarthy's name when I noticed that one of my favourite films, No Country for Old Men, had been adapted from a book he had written. I wouldn't call myself a massive fan of post-apocalyptic literature and I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed (if that is right word) this book. This book has never left me and I still feel a slight heart-ache every time I think about it. Simply written. Simply brilliant.10/10 (2012-03-01)
9.9/10 from 15 reviews
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