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BOOK REVIEW: Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ Offers Ray of Hope in a Post-Apocalyptic America

Posted by kinchendavid on October 5, 2006

By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV  – Cormac McCarthy has written the ultimate post-apocalyptic novel with his latest book, “The Road” (Knopf, 256 pages, $24.00). The plot is simple: A man and his son embark on a trip to the ocean in an America destroyed by what is obviously a nuclear exchange of unbelievable scale.

Neither have names: The only names I encountered in the novel were those of a man who called himself Ely, a man the pair met on their journey – and a freighter discovered by the two when the reach the ocean. It’s a Spanish freighter called the Pajaro de Esperanza (Bird of Hope). Considering what happens at the novel’s end, that freighter from the port of Tenerife in the Canary Islands is aptly named. At least I think so. But this is a Cormac McCarthy novel: don’t expect it to be the “Sweet Bird of Happiness.”

McCarthy uses one of the most popular forms of science fiction writing – the post-apocalyptic novel or story – to create a searing story of survival and the battle of good and evil. The man and his son – both undernourished in the extreme – scour fallout shelters and abandoned houses for canned goods that haven’t spoiled, filter creek and ditch water with a none-too-clean cloth, check the trash cans of abandoned service stations for usable fuel for their cigarette lighter to make a fire, and hide themselves and their shopping cart when they see others on their road to the sea. They consider themselves the “good guys” because they haven’t succumbed to the cannibalism practiced by most of the survivors. McCarthy doesn’t shirk from describing the most horrific sights – which the man often tries to hide from his son.

The man is armed with a revolver, presumably the one his wife used to kill herself. He has only two real bullets in the firearm; the others are dummies whittled from wood to make it appear that the revolver is fully loaded when they face the occasional “bad guys.”

The man’s wife killed herself shortly after the destruction of the nation – and the world. The man decided not to do likewise and a decade or so later the two are pushing a supermarket shopping cart with all their possessions along roads covered with gray ash of a nuclear winter. These are the “blue highways” of William Least Heat Moon transformed into “gray ash” highways strewn with debris, a pathway for roving bands of cannibals that call to mind the degenerate characters of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and similar horror films.

The dialogue in “The Road” is as spare and lean as the man and his son, with no quotation marks and McCarthy’s peculiar absence of apostrophes in some of the contractions – but not all. The boy — probably about 10, but undoubtedly looking younger because of his near starvation — is constantly asking his father if they are the “good guys,” if people they encounter on the road are always the “bad guys.” At times, the son wonders if his father is always acting the way a “good guy” should. Years of wandering have made the father a survivalist who edges closer to the “bad guys” image in the son’s view, at least.

McCarthy’s use of the post-apocalyptic form – widely used in such sci-fi classics as (two of my favorites) “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959, winner of the 1961 Hugo for best s-f novel) and Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” (1969, revised 1976) – make “The Road” accessible to all readers. McCarthy, author of 10 novels and famous for his “Border Trilogy” and last year’s best-seller “No Country for Old Men,” is confident in his ability to craft any form of fiction, any type of genre, be it the Western of the Border Trilogy or the crime thriller of “No Country for Old Men” or the sci-fi post-apocalyptic form of “The Road” into a work that is clearly the product of Cormac McCarthy’s philosophy.

Knopf obviously has confidence in McCarthy’s drawing power, with a first printing of 250,000. It’s also a Book of the Month Club Main selection. I hope the author doesn’t consider my references to genre fiction demeaning. I have found outstanding writing in such masters of genre as Ray Bradbury, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard – to name just a few authors. Similarly, “mainstream literary” writers like Gore Vidal, John Updike and Philip Roth have used genre fiction frameworks for novels such as Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”

I finished “The Road” with my eyes filled with tears in response to the love of the man for his son and vice versa. It’s an outstanding novel, perhaps the best work of fiction I’ve read this year. I’m deliberately avoiding telling too much about the events portrayed in “The Road.” Consider this entire review a “spoiler alert”!

Publisher’s web site: http://www.aaknopf.com

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