Saturday, February 13, 2010
Book Review: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
First, I must mention my thanks to Mr. Rawles of Survivalblog.com for the recommendation of this strong novel by author Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses). I have never read anything by McCarthy (I understand that the good Douglas Phillips of The Vision Forum held a negative view of the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men) and have not yet seen the movie based off of this particular novel (although I most certainly will now), so this will be a self-contained review.
That said, allow me to begin my review.
I have never, ever used this word to describe any book I have read or any film I have ever seen, but I must do so now. Horrifying. Absolutely horrifying.
Scared yet? You both should and shouldn't be. The disturbing and unsettling nature of the book is the reason why I think many people should read it (note that I said "many" and not "all").
Set in a post-apocalyptic world of cold nights, dark, ash-blown days, and few humans, almost none of them friendly, The Road is certainly not a fun before-bedtime reading excursion. Likewise, I must strongly stress that if you are to read this book, prepare for one of the darkest tales imaginable. It will frighten you, disturb you, and make you go pale. But it should.
The first thing the reader will notice is just how strangely the book is written, so much so that I was surprised to find that the book was from 2006 and not the 1970's or something. A lack of basic grammar and punctuation (see the first page to see an example) is rampant--for example, there are no quotation marks! This was both annoying and jarring. The reader also has to get used to McCarthy's subtle detailing (i.e., details are often inferred and not stated) and his use of "the man" and "the boy" to denote his two main characters, a father and small son.
Many years after the apocalypse (brought about by some unexplained war), the man and his son traverse the wastelands, slowly making their way to the coast and pushing an old shopping cart that holds their few belongings. As to McCarthy's storytelling ability, I have to say that I felt he was above-par. While his style is disconcerting, McCarthy quickly and effectively connects with his readers and grabs before you know you've been grabbed. The reader cares immensely about what happens to the man and the boy he relentlessly protects and cares for. (Or, at least I did.)
The world that surrounds them is a futile one. Ash covers everything, and still falls after so many years. No animals exist any longer, or at least not to their knowledge. Any potential humans are to be seen as dangerous foes and not as friends (also make sure that if you are to read this you are comfortable with reading a story with a lot of cannibalism). I hesitate to align this book with any similar fiction as I've never encountered anything quite like it. (However, of note is that this book was read by some of those involved in the film Terminator: Salvation, including actress Moon Bloodgood.)
One huge aspect of the book that should resonate with just about any sane person is the man's unrelenting protection, care, and love of his son. It is said that they are "each the other's world entire"--that much is made crystal clear. The man gives his son the larger share of his food, protects him, and commendably tells his son at one point, "My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?" This was one of my favorite aspects of the book; the quote itself was by far my personal choice out of the whole book. The man also takes pains to teach the boy the difference between good and evil, and thus the difference between them and those around them (the good guys carry the "fire", he tells him).
On the flip side, this also yields a much darker aspect to the book. The man will protect his son at any and all costs--that is partly why this is such a dark tale. With resources at an almost unimaginable low, more than once it comes down to the life of the boy, or the life of another poor soul. Take note of these scenes. Take note of what the man does to protect and provide for his son, take note of how the boy feels about what he sees his father do and what he sees in the world around him. Take all of this, and ask yourself.
As to the clear survivalist aspects of the book (the one and only reason I read it), I am impelled to ask that readers not take this book as a manual. "The man" makes countless mistakes and errors; Rawles outlined those found in the recent film, and I see it fit to link them here as they are close enough to the book. The first that comes to mind is the use of main roads, what the title was taken from. However, one can easily assume that McCarthy wasn't trying to write a survival manual, and was only trying to tell a story. I see nothing wrong with that (in fact, use the mistakes as a warning not to make them yourself!). The exception to this would be that, the moment the "war" began, the man filled his bathtub with water. Yes, do this!
The characters hunt for food such as old canned goods, dried up fruit, mushrooms, and the like. The man is constantly on the hunt for useful tools. This sort of thinking is something that everyone should have, or at least be able to adapt into at a moment's notice. In one particularly good scene, they stumble upon an underground bunker built by some old and likely deceased survivalist. Filled with food, ammunition, and useful items of every description, I personally took this part of the book as a "You had better!" warning. (However, please make sure to include an actual gun alongside the ammunition if you do build such a bunker, if for no one else than the man and the little boy that might one day find it unused.)
[SPOILER WARNING!] The book also deals with the difference between men and women in such situations, also discussed here. Without giving too much away, men fight on, while women give up, overwhelmed by futility. (Though not always--this wasn't some sort of chauvinism fest for any who may think so.)
All that said, a few of the issues I had with the novel were the following:
1) The strange and sometimes less than appropriate representation of God. In such a fallen and dying world, the idea of a God is either unwelcome, unknown, or held onto. Although seen through the story and the eyes of "the man", I wasn't particularly pleased with this treatment here. For example, on pp. 11-12, "Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a heart? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God." On page 114, when he is particularly desperate, "Curse God and die." And on page 5 we read, "If he [the boy] is not the word of God God never spoke." When a flare is fired, the boy wonders if it could be used to show God where they were. The man replies, "Yeah. Maybe somebody like that." (p. 246)
Another scene actually has "the man" himself question a dying person's lack of belief in a higher power. The man also speaks of prayer once (p. 234), although in a somewhat secular manner, and his son offers prayers to people on more than one occasion (for example, as a thankskgiving to whoever left the food-laden bunker behind). When an appropriately religious character is introduced, the boy still finds it easier to speak to a person instead of God, and said religious figure told him it was "all right" (p. 286).
2) ADULTS ONLY The sexual content, although very minimal. The man dreams about his wife, and references to her breasts (p. 131) and her nipples (p. 18) are made. Thankfully, this is as far as it gets (not counting a passing reference to rape).
Now I will proceed with a very unusual tactic I haven't quite used before in any of my reviews. I am going to tell some of the biggest (though by no means the only) spoilers so as to provide a way for interested readers to decided if they want to read the book or not. They are true plot spoilers, and are immensely disturbing, so I warn any and all right here and right now. If you wish to proceed, you can't say I didn't warn you, and if you can't handle reading what I'm about to say, then don't even try reading the book.
[SPOILER WARNING!] In one scene, the man finds an underground cellar, locked and filled with naked and emaciated people, barely alive and huddled in a corner. As they come to, they are desperate for help from him. He flees from them, knowing that he can barely provide for his son, let alone a party of extras. Chillingly, as they flee they find just why these people were locked in a cellar. Several people, men and women included, are keeping them there until they eat them, one by one. Forced to hunker down and spend the night near the spot to avoid detection, they hear the screams of one of them....
If that doesn't scare you, then this will. In a scene that literally made me take my eyes off the page for a moment and is the final qualifying reason I call the book "horrifying", the man and the boy feel someone is following them. Turning off the road to watch, they see several men and a very pregnant woman traveling. They let them pass, then sleep the night, next morning awaking to find smoke in the distant sky. They make their way to the site of the fire, and find a hastily abandoned camp where said people had only minutes before been. On a spit over the remains of a fire is the gutted, beheaded body of a small baby. They were cooking and eating a baby only hours old. Readers have good reason to infer that the mother herself was complicit in this as well.
So, there you have it. I have provided the necessity; you choose for yourself whether or not to attempt a read. (And yes, I am convinced that Oprah simply did not read this herself!)
I recommend this book, with the reservations listed above, and also, I can recommend it to men only. As to women, I hesitate to do so, and as to children, I must stress that this is not child-friendly in any way, shape, or form. It makes you think about the what-ifs of a possible future, and it forces you to think about what it may do to you and the people around you, loved ones or strangers, if such a thing did happen. For these reasons I recommend this novel to thoughtful, martialist*, survivalist, Christian men.
*As defined by Craig Mutton of WARSKYL.
EDIT: Craig Mutton has brought it to my attention that the word "martialist" exists outside of his own usage of it and was not "coined" by him. My apologies to my readers for the mix-up, and my thanks to Mr. Mutton for the notification.