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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Road

Cormac McCarthy has never been as readable as in The Road, his latest book about a post-apocalyptic world involving a man and his young son.

My first exposure to McCarthy was All the Pretty Horses, and he's one of the few authors I look forward to reading as newer books are released. I bought the hardcover version of No Country For Old Men but held out for a paperback of The Road, which was pushed earlier than expected since Oprah put it as a choice for her book club. I was with a friend in Seattle at a bookstore looking looking for a how-to-deal-with-a-teenager book (for him, thankfully) when I saw The Road propped up on the information desk with an Oprah sticker on it. I am very suspect of stickers and badges that promise great content since trusting a book called American Pastoral by Philip Roth that had a Pulitzer sticker on it. ("Kiss me like you kiss mother" still makes me cringe.) After Lonesome Dove, which deserves a gold sticker, I felt betrayed, but I knew McCarthy and in spite of the endorsement by the O, I snatched up The Road. I peeled the sticker off before I started reading.

Between the years that All the Pretty Horses, the Crossing and Cities on a Plain came out, I tried a few other McCarthy books. He has been consist ant in his crazy run-on style, stripped of punctuation, letting the words themselves keep the cadence of inflection and emphasis, but the earlier works were at times hard to muddle through. I can recall scenes in The Orchard Keeper, but can vaguely remember the plot.

Maybe the simplicity of The Road is part of the appeal. It follows two characters, the man and the boy, on their journey to the sea through a grey world with no life left in it at all. But as with anything McCarthy seems to write, the prose is poetic and vivid. Check out the following:

"By then all the stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and in the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers from the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyon with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them as silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond."

Pretty stark, probably even by Oprah's standards. There's no mistaking McCarthy for a romance novelist, but in the scale of violence that dominates most of his work, the damage in The Road has been done before the story begins. With the starkness of the setting the focus of the book is the relationship between the boy and his father. The boy is scared yet trusts his father completely, and the man does his part to care for the boy as best he can in the situation. There are a few fights and deaths along the way, but in the boy, there is hope. Throughout the story the boy and the man speak of how they are the last to carry the fire, which is never explained or dissected. The boy strives for hope, and seeks reassurance from his dad that they are the good guys.

The story is infused with the humanity of these two, and the humor is as realistic as the setting is nihilistic. In a scene where the they have found some cover and a chance for a soak in a tub, this made me laugh.

"It took a long time but he wanted it to be good and warm. When the tub was almost full, the boy got undressed and stepped shivering into the water and sat. Scrawny and filthy and naked. Holding his shoulders. The only light was from the ring of blue teeth in the burner of the stove. What do you think? the man said.

Warm at last.
Warm at last?
Where did you get that?
I don't know.
Okay. Warm at last."

As the story ends there is some discussion of an afterlife, and the man seems to see paradise the closer he nears death. He leaves the boy with hope, and the ending is satisfying in terms of the story as it is presented. This is a story of the last few remaining good people left on earth, and thank goodness it is fiction. The real hope we have in a Savior is not part of this fiction, nor of the characters in the book. They are the playthings of a master puppeteer of words, but the reality of God and Jesus are not something they know about. In a way, it's a two-dimensional representation of a story that reads like a myth, with only a murky view of the spiritual third dimension that would give the story more depth and real hope. Still, it is an important book as literature, and as a view into the minds of those who seek hope with no direction.

Although I approach stickered and badged books with a raised brow and suspicion, The Road deserves a dozen of them, plastered all over the front so other skeptics will give this great book a shot. It is Cormac McCarthy though, so expect the violence, and enjoy the small hopes of a small boy.




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