Post Road Magazine #18

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

Bill Janovitz

My wife's book group just started The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. It is the book that has affected me the most, that I would even call my favorite, if that word didn't seem so inappropriate somehow. It is a holy book, filled with haikus for/from the apocalypse. Still, I was not confident and still am uncertain in recommending it to everyone I know. Part of the basis for that doubt is my deeply personal response to the work; I don't want to hear that anyone close to me does not feel the same way about it.

My wife's is not one of those Oprah-inspired groups, and I am not well-versed on the TV host's list of picks, but this book is probably the least predictable of Winfrey's choices. The rarely accessible author even gave her a sit-down interview, a mostly wasted opportunity from the clips I saw online. As we know, the book went on to win the Pulitzer. And it was made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen, released this winter.

These notices from the mainstream are interesting given the book's subject matter and tone. The words often associated with the work include "bleak," "depressing," "dark," and so on. And it is a deeply troubling and harrowing work of fiction. The ashen post-apocalyptic world, barren of most life except for some scattered scavengers, is nevertheless not some Road Warrior-esque sci-fi; the tableau is merely the stark backdrop for a devastatingly moving and classically human story of a father's relationship with his young son.

"If he was not the word of God, God never spoke," is the father's estimation of his charge. And this is the redemption that is to be found in McCarthy's world. I am still only somewhat familiar with his other work, having read a couple books from the Border Trilogy. But The Road takes his view of a cruel world to extremes and boils salvation down to elemental human connection and a somewhat vague and shaky faith. "Do you carry the fire?" the son asks his father. "Are you one of the good guys?" There are some breathtaking passages, simple and austere:

They went up the stairs and turned and went down the hallway. Small cones of damp plaster standing in the floor. The wooden lathes of the ceiling exposed. He stood in the doorway to his room. A small space under the eaves. This is where I used to sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child's imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be. He pushed open the closet door half expecting to find his childhood things. Raw cold daylight fell through from the roof. Gray as his heart.

We should go, Papa. Can we go? Yes. We can go.

I'm scared.

I know, I'm sorry. I'm really scared.

It's all right. We shouldn't have come.

I'm a little late to this book. It sat there in my pile of things to read, CDs listen to, bills to pay, songs to finish, laundry to fold. I finally read it this past winter in a matter of a night or two. The last thing I had expected was a page-turner. I was torn between re-reading it immediately and trying to move on. I spent entire nights on the excellent user forum at a McCarthy fan site. I don't recall ever being moved so significantly by a book. It kicked me on a fundamental level and has heightened certain essential components of my consciousness. I walked around the latenight empty house when I finished, more or less sobbing. And I did not feel manipulated. Like a deeply affecting piece of music, the book worked me over on a primal and physical level.

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