The Road by Cormac Mccarthy

Where does one begin in reviewing a novel of this importance?

Well, first let’s reflect on its critical merit.  It won the Pulitzer Prize last year.  I have a great affection for both this and the Booker Prize as I believe they award great, and readable, books.  I had a trawl through the Pulitzer archives to see what it came up with.  Have a look yourself.  You might be surprised as to what has and hasn’t won.

For me I’d read the following winners;

The Road 2007

Middlesex 2003

The Shipping News 1994

A thousand Acres of Sky 1992

To Kill a Mockingbird 1961

The Grapes of Wrath 1940

(Jeana had also read The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields that won in 1995.)

With the exception of A Thousand Acres of Sky I would put every one down as a stonewall classic.  (For the record I think Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven is a far more interesting read than 1,000 Acres.)

Anyway, returning to The Road in particular, Tom Gatti of The Times says on the jacket “It will knock the breath from your lungs.” and I cannot disagree.

This post-apocalyptic novel is fearsome, chilling and very scary indeed.  Honestly, it’s like watching a superior horror film, so visceral, taught and fast flowing is his writing.  My other favourite post-apocalyptic book is Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood which is also very frightening, but has a less foreboding sense of inevitability about it.

As is his wont McCarthy brings God in a fair amount.  Fair enough when you’re one of the few remaining souls on earth.  But he does so with a lightness of touch that is utterly in keeping with the narrative.

In the hands of the right director and cinematographer – ah, Mr and Mr Coen, do step forward please – this would make a multi-Oscar winning movie because his plotting and imagery is so breathtaking.  Like No Country for Old Men he paints a visual tableaux throughout the book that is screenplay-like.  But the depth and quality of his language is what raises him above most living writers.

Compare him to one of my favourite oft-filmed writers, Ian McEwan, and you can see why McEwan is accused of writing for show (many accused him of this in On Chesil Beach).  McCarthy never does this.  Everything is stripped down and considered.  Every last word.

He has a habit of concluding conversations between the son and father when big decisions are being mnade between them with two words.

Okay?  Okay!

Of course, without the punctuation.

I thought this simple device said much more than you could ever imagine the repetition of two duplicated unpunctuated words ever could.

The device demonstrates trust – deep, deep trust – love, commitment, understanding, conviction, resolve  and determination.

How does he do that by simply writing…



Because he is a genius.  That is how.

The relationship between the main protagonists, the father and son, is heartbreakingly close, loving, tender and harrowing.  On more than one occassion I was close to tears.  Their fear is palpable as the events unfold.

No preaching.  No heavy handed political metaphor. Although many believe that this is one of the most important environmental statements ever made and I am inclined to agree with that because it so clearly demonstrates what life without a functioning planetary ecosystem might be like.  I tell you what, you wouldn’t like it.

It’s just a wonderful story about the human condition.  Draw from it your own conclusions.

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough.  Far and away my book of this or almost any year.

There is no question that this is required reading for the human race.

PS.  Just in case you think I’m being overly enthusiastic I’ll put in a word of warning.  A friend of mine said it was “a bit boring.”  I quite honestly can’t comprehend why he thought that, but he did so hey, I’ve warned you.

But, if you buy this book on the back of my review and you find it a bit boring, I’ll pay for it for you.

PPS Since writing the above I note that a film adaptation of the novel is currently in production. It is directed by John Hillcoat and written by Joe Penhall. The film stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Man and the Boy, respectively. Production has taken place in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Oregon.

15 thoughts on “The Road by Cormac Mccarthy

  1. “McCarthy never does this. Everything is stripped down and considered. Every last word.”

    I beg to differ: see B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto, especially page 45, which contains this whopper from The Crossing:

    He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

    Myers points out the bizarre flow, or non-flow, the needless word repetitions, and distinguishes him from Hemingway. I would quote at length were that length not so long.

    There is no question that this is required reading for the human race.

    There is no required reading for the human race: only better writers and worse writers, and the better hit a larger number of us or a smaller number of us in deeper places. Normally the only people who think about required reading for everyone are missionaries with the Bible, Koran, or tract of choice.


  2. Well, perhaps this book is of biblical significance. And I accept he went a bit OTT on the tortillas, but so would you if you hadn’t eaten for weeks. Perhaps it was metaphorical.


  3. I, too, was moved to tears and actually broke down six pages from the end (I won’t give away the ending). This is the first Cormac McCarthy book I’ve read and based on this, I’ll most likely read others. From first to last page, it took me three days to read it, which with my schedule, is no small accomplishment. I didn’t find it boring, although the word “gray” was used a lot, but I suppose if everything is covered in ash and soot, then gray is the operative word.


  4. Read this and thought of you, mr. thick-rimmed specs-wearing marketing guru…..

    ….specifically the opening gambit: “As any marketing guru worth his thick-rimmed spectacles will explain, The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer-winning novel, was always destined to be a smash bestseller.”

    Read all here:

    ps: i’m one of the “homely types for whom the reviews that harped on that tenderness between the father and son sent them running upstairs to hug their kids” – I had thought of the main protags being me and the wee man.

    pps: – a film i saw a couple of years ago called the Proposition was also directed by Hillcoat. The story was grim and recalled the Cormac McCarthy tale Blood Meridian apparently. Turns out the screenplay was written by Nick Cave (I didnae ken that) – another of your recent faves.
    I must read some McCarthy. I like short sentences.

    You getting a taste for the macabre.

    ppps – happy new year!


  5. James ref Zadie Smith. She is a very good writer. I have read all of her stuff and she’s probably reviewed on my blog somewhere. On Beauty was probably written after I gave birth to gibberish.


  6. Wow Mark – good review – 2 salient points you make in that meant I had to point you here…

    1/ “Zadie Smith, like Spike Lee, is popular in middle-class arty white society and, I suspect, likes the fact.”

    They should both appear on this…

    (I once called Spike Lee a racist bigot in an online comment. I liked when Clint Eastwood recently told him to shut it.)

    2/ “but I think Zadie Smith needs a sabbatical to find new writing material/subjects.”

    Your review was Nov 2007. This article (although removed for expired copyright, the heading/sub-heading says it all) was from 21st Nov 2009…

    Looks like she took your advice!


  7. Pingback: The Road « gibberish

  8. Pingback: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Review. | gibberish

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