Friday, March 18, 2011

Novel Reviews: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Occasionally I find myself in a literary rut.  The problem is that I am always tempted to reread some of my old favorite novels again and again.  I've worn out copies of Ender's Game and Stranger in a Strange Land.  I love serial fiction and will reread an entire series when something new is released, refreshing what has never truly grown stale.

I know that I must occasionally bring myself to read something new, lest my tastes in literature become as fixed (and arguably stagnant) as my tastes in music.  Luckily I have a few very good friends who recommend authors on a regular basis.  One such friend has been entreating me to read McCarthy for awhile now.  He also compelled me to sample the works of Philip K. Dick and introduced me to the Steampunk genre with Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine.  The real irony of the situation is that this friend refers to me as his 'fiction pimp'.

So I set about reading The Road, which had received my friend's highest recommendation among McCarthy's works.  It has also received some lesser accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  At one point it was named it the best book, fiction or non-fiction, of the past 25 years, albeit by Entertainment Weekly; which is sort of like the Jonas Brothers telling you that your band "really kicks ass."

I've always had a habit of assigning a personality to an author based on that author's works.  Stephen King is the type of fellow who makes interesting conversation but takes forever doing it and tends to drift off before coming to any sort of conclusion.  Neil Gaiman is a combination of Willy Wonka and The Mad Hatter.  Robert Heinlein is a daffy old lecher.  All this occurs in the great shindig of my imagination.  And under this modus operandi, Cormac McCarthy is an insufferable douchebag.

Even though reading his book left me with this unshakable opinion of the man himself, I still found it to be an excellent read, and there's the rub.  It isn't the story or the settings or the characters that I find unpalatable, but the style of writing and the voice of the author himself. He eschews quotation marks and other ordinary punctuation because he doesn't wish to "blot up the page with weird little marks."  And while in the case of The Road the bleak landscape of the page reflects that of the setting, his reason for doing so smacks of condescension.  While such haughtiness is common in successful authors, it made for a bad first impression with this reader.

That being said, the story itself was phenomenal.  It is simply magnificent in its understatement and heart.  The bleak sterility of the world through which "the man" and "the boy" must travel stands in stark contrast to the richness of the relationship between the two of them.  As a father I felt my own obligation to my children reflected in the duty felt by the father in the story.  While there were only a handful of encounters in the storyline itself, they were more than sufficient to complete a wholly satisfying story arc.  My only complaint with the plot was in the resolution, but I am willing to accept that the problem there may be mine.  I find many of my favorite stories have let me down on the last page, but I don't love them any less for it.

What it all boils down to is that this is definitely a worthwhile and challenging read.  Some authors can challenge their readers without appearing pompous, but that doesn't happen here.


  1. Love the review. And the line about the 'lesser accolades' made me giggle out loud. So good job here.

    I will take full responsibility for the recommendation and maintain 'The Road' is one of my top 5 favorite works of fiction ever -- for the reason you note (the fantastic story). But I also like his writing style and the lack of punctuation. Sure, it is elitist and condescending, but then again he has the right to be condescending because he is one hell of an author.

  2. I remember a music theory class I once took. According to my instructor, a composer (or an author, if I may translate the metaphor) takes a risk when deviating from established forms. While history may vindicate him eventually, during his lifetime it just makes him obnoxious.