The Road by Cormac McCarthy is yet further proof that you can be wrong about things.
Many years ago I had been deeply engaged in reading William Faulkner and believed no one could take his work another step further. Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude changed my opinion on that. Faulkner stands as a giant and so does Márquez, having learned some Faulknerian lessons and taught us a few of his own.
I then began to read Cormac McCarthy’s work and somewhat slowly fell under his spell, but ultimately I surrendered to his mastery, never more present than in his parable-novel, The Road. This is a work seemingly set somewhat west of Faulkner territory with all the life, all the history, all the relations, all the everything blown out of it.
A father and son journey through an utter wasteland. How the wasteland came to be isn’t explained. What will happen to it isn’t suggested. There seem to be other survivors of whatever happened--one would assume some kind of nuclear firestorm raged across every square inch of the earth and sea--and the father likes to play along with the son’s idea that there are good people among them as well as bad people.
Almost every paragraph of this book is poetry. It excels in taking the humblest of objects and experiences and magnifying their importance to the point that a vista or a locked door or a layer of ashes rippling in the wind assumes metaphysical significance.
As usual McCarthy works wonders with landscapes, patterns of land upon land, heaps of sky upon sky, desolation in the turbid waters of the ruined sea. He also creates a symbiotic relationship between father and son that is so true, loyal, loving, and stalwart that it’s heartbreaking on more than one very difficult day.
The Road is a mystery much as Waiting for Godot is a mystery. Each reader will fill in the gaps in his or her own way, but the challenge is two-fold. First, the reader must sense the apocalypse somewhere in the air; if nothing in you tells you the world could one day come to an end, this isn’t a book for you. Second, the reader has to love lush and yet precise writing more than plot.
Faulkner isn’t for everyone. A lot of readers can’t follow him, think he’s overwrought and so forth. Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ magical realism has been so widely imitated that to some readers, the real thing might come across as a cliche. McCarthy is so intense, so distilled, so controlled within such a narrow bandwidth of human love, suffering and calamity that some readers surely will just not enjoy his work, even find it boring.
But I’m a reader who thinks McCarthy is a great writer and The Road is a great book. This book is a nightmare, it’s a tale of deprivation, it’s a tale of survival, and it’s an omen, one we should heed.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund