Cormac McCarthy’s awesome 2006 novel The Road is my favourite novel. I relish the day that I might read something more powerful, moving or memorable, but I can’t see that happening any day soon. A film is due out soon, directed by John Hillcoat (who made The Proposition, a great pedigree for tackling this) and starring Viggo Mortensen. I have high hopes for it but, again, I struggle to see how it might create the same devastating impact as McCarthy’s words.
A tag cloud for reviews of this book would centre on things like bleak, harrowing,terrible, haunting. But they’d also include intimate, beautiful, poetic, humanity.
In a post-apocalyptic landscape, an unnamed father and son travel towards the coast, fleeing the onset of winter. They move on foot, pushing a cart, scavenging empty houses and destroyed towns, desparately eluding gangs reduced to cannibalism. Everywhere is burnt and grey, marked with ash. In fact, the world has become like a sensory deprivation tank. Monochromatic landscapes are flattened and matt. Silence reigns, indeed any new noises represent a threat. Other people represent a threat. There are few smells, there is no sun, no weather to speak of, except an unremitting, damp cold.
He tried to think of something but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness of dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true.
Within this the plot is relatively thin, but McCarthy maintains pace by keeping each scene barely more than a paragraph long. His dialogue says more in a few words than other writers manage in a whole chapter. The relationship between father and son is both tender and heartbreaking. The boy serves as his conscience, a feeble shaft of light in all the ash and blackness. The father likewise preserves something in the boy - his humanity, his capacity to love.
SPOILER ALERT… if you haven’t read the novel yet, and are thinking about doing so, you should probably stop now.
McCarthy’s spare, mesmerising prose forces you onwards, clinging to the possibility that the coast may offer some kind of relief. But there is none.
Out there was the grey beach with the slow combers roliing dull and leaden and the distan sound of it. Like the desolation of some alien sea breaking on the shores of a world unheard of. Out on the flats lay a tanker half careened. Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and the the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy.
The final pages are both terrible and beautiful. The simplicity of the language strikes all the more immediately into the reader’s heart and soul.
I cant. I cant hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.
You said you wouldnt leave me.
I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you.You’ll see.
I dare anyone with children to read The Road without running to them and holding them close. I dare anyone to read it without a worry for the world they inherit. To my mind it’s a brutal warning of how much good there is in this world, how much we have to lose, and how far we may fall (and how fast) in its absence.
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