The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Although I'd read about a dozen reviews of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD from the time it came out (November, I think), all of which were glowlingly positive, I really hadn't developed any great desire to read the book. His last, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, didn't impress me. I loved the "Border Trilogy" and in fact spent a lot of time down in West Texas-New Mexico camping and wandering and hearing McCarthy's language run through my head. But NO COUNTRY wasn't great; it was just a crime book, and not a particularly brilliant one at that. It did have McCarthy's great language, but also showed some of his limitations as a writer (plotting, female characters, a variety of tone). And when I read that THE ROAD was a postapocalyptic story, a nuclear winter kinda thing, chronicling the journey of a father and his young son (never specified, but maybe 8-10 years old) from the north down to the Gulf Coast area, I figured that it would be McCarthy's natural finishing-point. His specialty has always been the barren, the cruel, the senseless, and the ways that people (especially men) maintain relationships and devotion to each other through those kinds of adversity. He also has a boundless interest in the details of life for men who work with their hands, with animals and tools and such. I'm not sure any writer has every used the word "hasp" as much as McCarthy does.

I picked up THE ROAD at 10:30 on Saturday night and I could not put it down until it was done. I haven't read a book like that in years--probably since I read THE CROSSING, also by McCarthy. There's not much of a plot, because it really is just the story of this father taking care of his son as they walk the road and try to avoid the "bad people," the "blood cults" of cannibals who have banded together to hunt and eat other people. (Several years into a nuclear winter, no plant life whatsoever can grow and almost all edible animals are extinct, so people either eat whatever canned food they can find that hasn't already been scavenged or other people.) There are times when the details of the book transcend McCarthy's older fascination with blood and violence and cruelty--such as in BLOOD MERIDIAN--and move into Stephen King or pulp fiction territory (headless gutted infants on barbecue spits, a padlocked crawl space/larder full of naked, partial amputees awaiting further amputation and cooking), but probably because of McCarthy's relentlessly serious language it never feels like a parody, although it is RIPE for parody. And the deeper theme that he is exploring is hardly one that's he's the first one to explore: the power of father-son devotion.

But by creating this nightmarish world, a world where suicide really does seem like the most sensible option (the mother kills herself soon after giving birth to the son because she realizes that), McCarthy asks whether the paternal imperative to protect a child and keep that child going, even at the cost of one's own life, continues to make any sense when the world itself is lifeless, when staying alive probably means joining one of those blood cults and living by cannibalism and marauding, and when things will never--guaranteed--get any better. In this way THE ROAD is really just a male version of BELOVED, another book about a parent who chooses death for her child because life (in this case, as a slave) is worse than oblivion. In Morrison's book, the murdered daughter returns as a revenant to haunt the mother's post-slavery life. In THE ROAD, the father makes the opposite choice: he will keep his son alive and will die in the effort. Why? the reader asks. Why does this father think that living in this barren world is worth it? Is he another of McCarthy's typical heroes, living by first principles only (stay alive) and focusing his thoughts not on existential questions but on practical ones, such as how to bore out the axle of a shopping-cart wheel to make it run true (I think I ran across three words I'd never seen before just in that passage)?



  • At 8:23 PM, Blogger Laurie Kelley said…

    I don't know if you will get this, but I agree totally. What a compelling book! I also could not put it down until I had finished. The movie is also good, and seems to follow the book perfectly. This was the first book I ever read by this author.


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