Cormac McCarthy returns to form
Noted author releases his newest novel, ‘The Road’

by Joe Foster

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy; fiction; Knopf Publishing; hardcover, 256 pages; September 2006

Cormac McCarthy’s got a new book, folks. Those of you who have read him before just dripped slobber on your shirt. Those of you that haven’t, need to pay attention. McCarthy is the author of nine other novels including the critically acclaimed Border Trilogy and one of the masterpieces of 20th Century literature, Blood Meridian. His most recent novel, No Country for Old Men, was much anticipated after about a decade of nothing from McCarthy, but the book was not well received. Readers accustomed to the brilliance of his earlier works were let down by the brilliant mediocrity of his comeback novel. I read it, and thought it was just all right; kinda disappointing as the consensus indicated.

However, his newest novel, The Road, got my blood pumping when I read the book jacket – a guy like McCarthy, one of the geniuses (geniui?) of letters, writing a book that sounds a bit like “The Road Warrior,” just without all the leather. The hardest thing to find in a book is the combination of both a good story and good writing. With McCarthy, you’re going to get the good writing. That’s a given. The man’s a genius. You add into the mix the possibilities this story holds and the odds of a great read increase dramatically.

The Road shows us a world that has been destroyed by an occurrence only barely mentioned half-way through the book, “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” It has become a world of ash and dust, without sunlight or color, animal life or vegetation. The survivors, because there are always survivors, are scattered and separated by their own desperation. The only food is found in cans, and there is only so much to go around. Survivors travel the road terrified of starvation and of falling afoul of those that have decided that perhaps there is more food to be found among the fellow living. Filthy rednecks with homemade weapons prowl the road in search of prey, running in packs and relentlessly pursuing any living thing that crosses their paths. Armed with a pistol, two bullets, and a debatably healthy distrust, the man and the boy, our nameless heroes, walk the road to the coast, hundreds of miles away in the hopes of better and safer things in this post-apocalyptic fable.

You can’t really talk about McCarthy without talking about violence - the threat of it, the reality of it, the figurative and literal guts of it; that violence that, given the right or wrong situations, is there in the forefront of every word and gesture. It is, unfortunately, this violence that serves as the foundation for the world we live in, the root of things, our instincts for survival, our self-importance. When we have much, others have little because of a domineering violence perpetrated by us or by others like us. Such is the society we have constructed for ourselves, that has been constructed for us by those that came before and were exactly like ourselves. It is this violence that is at the core of The Road.

While McCarthy writes of violence, he also writes of beauty like few others can or will. I remember one day sitting at the bar in Carvers eating lunch and reading Blood Meridian. I literally sat and finished an entire sandwich while rereading one paragraph, disarmed by its brilliance. But much of the beauty he shows is painful - those unguarded moments when the weight of things causes us to forget to temper ourselves. There are times when the starkest of beauties can be found while regarding the intense pain of others; the voyeuristic tendencies of readership, perhaps. The man who kneels in the ash of a destroyed world unable to feed or protect the little boy in his care; fists clenched in fury, eyes clouded in pain, a blood-phlegmed cough shaking his body as he curses and damns the god that would allow such things to pass. So beautiful in its savagery and its honesty.

McCarthy writes some pretty complex stuff, so for me to presume to explain it all to you right here would be tiresome, insulting. McCarthy seems to live for complexity, which he covers with the sparest of sentences, sentences that Hemingway would have stopped drinking for. The symbol of The Road itself carries enough nuances to keep English lit professors working for the next decade. Some are obvious: life, trials and tribulations, etc. Some maybe not quite so much: the connections and commonalities we all still share despite growing so far apart as to be known to each other simply as hunter or victim. Some move a bit deeper still: the suffering we all choose because of our inability to trust, unnecessary pain that stops only if we leave the road on which we’ve set ourselves. The real genius behind McCarthy’s work is that he gives us, his readers, credit for being readers. He doesn’t explain what’s going on, he lets us figure it out for ourselves. If you want a light read, don’t read McCarthy. If you want the story to unfold in the time-tested formulaic methods of modern thrillers and mysteries, do not read McCarthy. This guy’s tough, he’s brilliant, he’s the kind of poet that doesn’t give a damn if you understand what he just said or not. You have to think and pay attention, and allow yourself to walk this road he’s laid out before you. •



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