“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

This was my second read of Cormac McCarthy’s multiple award winner The Road, this month’s pick for the reading group I’ve started, of books with themes of myth and religion. Again, I found The Road a profound, moving, provocative story of the environment and human nature, told with Christian allegory. I flinched at times. At others I couldn’t stop reading until I found out what happened to the unnamed man and his son. And in the end I cried, then dried my tears and read through till the end, which some see as hopeful and others (like my husband, G. Grod) do not.

Yes, it was made into a movie, with Viggo Mortenson. It didn’t get great reviews; I don’t plan to see it. As for the book, though, there are spoilers ahead. If you haven’t yet read the book, I recommend it. Read it and come back to discuss.

A man and his young son are on the road, heading south several years after an unspecified environmental disaster:

An hour later they were on the road. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things. In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gun metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire. (6)

That last phrase, “each the other’s world entire” continues to awe me with how much power five words can carry. McCarthy subtly creates the near future and its slight off-ness. He doesn’t use apostrophes for the word not: didnt, wouldnt, cant. Yet he does use it for other contractions: we’re, they’re, there’s. He’ll occasionally tweak a word, as when the man uses the binoculars to “glass” the road below, to create a feeling of difference.

The first time I read the novel, I was convinced there had been a nuclear holocaust. This time, noting the references to the distant sun, I suspect a natural disaster, something like the meteor some scientists theorize brought in the Ice Age and the end of the dinosaurs.

The man and his son stumble through a ruined landscape, scavenging for canned food and fuel from the past. This raises the question of hope versus futility. If hope, then is it a good thing, or was there a reason it was what remained in the box Pandora opened? Is hope an evil, like the rest of what escaped, or is it the antidote?

I choose to believe in hope. That’s what I read into the book, though I see how McCarthy skillfully left readers to draw their own conclusions in many instances, especially the end.

3 Responses to ““The Road” by Cormac McCarthy”

  1. Steph Says:

    I am one of those people who don’t really see the ending as happy, but what’s interesting is that I was talking to a friend about this book and she was saying that she really didn’t like the book BECAUSE of the ending, which she thought was a cop-out because it was happy/hopeful. It’s funny how we can read books in such different ways!

  2. girldetective Says:

    Steph, that’s exactly why I appreciate the ending–it’s not happy or sad, or anything other than what each reader interprets it as. I wouldnt say it’s happy, I’d say it has a glimmer of hope.

  3. sm Says:

    i read this last year and shot thru it in 24 hours - maybe not the best idea for such a dreary, bleak novel - but it’s structure just lent itself to keep going. with no chapters (just short section after short section) and my alarm up almost continually, i had a sense of urgency to finish it. plus, maybe, i knew it would be a downer and i wanted to get it over with and move on as soon as i could….
    the images and emotions stayed with me for days
    and, like i always do when i’m still unsettled after a book or a film is finished - i looked it up on wikipedia.
    so many people are calling it an environmental novel - which i think is too superficial. the disaster has already happened; how does humnaity proceeed?
    not well, apparently.
    the book was beyond depressing because it showed that our instincts of self preservation are also self destructive. the whole journey is pointless - the boy ends up with the people he originally saw. they were just waiting for his father to be gone / dead. there can be no honor or moralistic purpose in that. it’s just self preservation all over again.