Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

After reading Linz's review of this Cormac McCarthy novel and given how much I loved the Coen Brothers' adaptation of his book No Country for Old Men, I decided to make The Road the next selection for my reading list. How fitting that as I blog about it today, it is also Cormac McCarthy's 75th birthday! Happy Birthday, Cormac--you rock!

The Road is less than 250 pages long and I read it in about a week. Actually, I was kind of dragging it out. Partly because the story is so grim, I knew there couldn't be a happy ending (as it happens, the ending isn't as bad as I had imagined, although there's definitely some ambiguity...) and partly because it's so beautifully and starkly written, that I didn't want it to end.

The Road
is the story of a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. It is dark and bleak and harsh. McCarthy doesn't give much background as to how the world ended up a scorched, barren wasteland, although it seems to be a self-inflicted wound rather than a natural disaster.

In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing take the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone.
As the man and the young boy travel through the destruction and desolation, their journey follows a persistent pattern of finding food, finding shelter, keeping safe, keeping warm, punctuated by moments of extreme danger and terror with the occasional glimmer of hope and joy. While the man represents the will to survive, his son symbolizes innocence, compassion and empathy in a world that no longer can afford the luxury of goodness.
When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant.
Although McCarthy paints an excruciatingly precise portrait of a horrific future, it's more of a tale of the will to live and the power of love and the bond between a father and his son:
Can I ask you something? he said.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we're still going south.
So we'll be warm.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
I'm going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
Yes. That's okay.
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
Beyond the constant struggle to stay alive, find food, avoid "human" predators and keep moving to a warmer climate, there is the aching melancholy of the life the father once had that the boy will never know:
All much as he'd remembered it...The same castiron coalgrate in the small fireplace...He stood there. He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago. This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked out at the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a hedge. On cold winter night when the electricity was out in a storm we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see.
Throughout reading the novel, I could visualize the landscape and characters. I thought it would make a terrific, albeit dark, film. And sure enough, The Road is being made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen and is scheduled for a November release--just in time for awards season. Linz and I wondered where exactly the journey undertaken in the novel actually occurred. I had the feeling it was more of an east coast location, even though many of McCarthy's other novels are set in the south or southwest. It's not explicitly stated, but it turns out the locations used for the film are mostly in the western Pennsylvania area. Including Pittsburgh! Aha--Flicksburgh strikes again!

The book was amazing--I can't wait to see the movie!


  1. I was waiting patiently for this review, since there was added weight of my having recommended it. To a stranger...

    I agree fully with your assessment. It is like someone, with a much better skill for writing and reviewing books, wrote my thoughts.

    I also can't wait for this movie. It has a really great cast. I am anxious that they will not do it justice, but I am going to try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  2. I have heard that the screenplay is very faithful to the book (although Charlize Theron is cast as the wife and obviously the rather slender part will be beefed up for the film). I hope that means they retain the sparseness of dialogue and stark visuals.

    I haven't heard of the director and cinematographer (Deakins would have made an awesome choice--sigh!) but Mortensen highly praised the actor playing his son. The kid is twelve, however. Didn't you think the boy was maybe six or seven in the book?

    I too will give them the benefit of the doubt. They're releasing during awards season, so obviously they think it's Oscar-worthy...

  3. I loved this book too! David's actually obsessed with the movie. He's so excited about it. I hope they don't screw it up. We'll both be so disappointed.

  4. Yeah, I thought the kid was younger in the book, but it'd probably be tough to find an actor that young who could play it.

  5. Hollie,

    I hear what you're saying. Sometimes I prefer to just see the movie without having read the book for that very reason. It's a tough thing to do an adaptation--you're never going to be able to please everyone! And there's so much of this book that's so very interior and internal. Still, I hope it turns out well.


    I think they could probably find a 6-7 year old (or 8-9 year old who looks young for their age) with the chops to pull it off. My concern would be exposing someone so young to the bleakness, desolation and horrors of the landscape being portrayed. Of course it's all pretend, but I can't help but think it'd be a bit traumatizing for someone very young to be exposed to that.

  6. I know the age of the boy was left unsaid on purpose, but based on how he talked and the things he did, I couldn't have thought he was ANY older than 9, but that was on the high side.

    Of course, a lot was left to interpretation and imagination, so perhaps the person adapting the screenplay saw it differently.

  7. Linz,

    I agree. I thought from the book that the boy's birth almost coincided with the start (or more appropriately "end") of whatever caused the worldwide holocaust. It seemed to me that part of his tragedy was that he'd never known a life other than scavenging for food and trying to survive.

    It's hard enough to imagine that going on for 6-7 years--much less 11-12!