Monday, January 28, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I've been meaning to get a little McCarthy under my belt for years, but it's hard to get psyched up to read books that I know are dark and violent. When No Country for Old Men came out as a movie by the Coen brothers a couple months ago, I pulled The Road-- the book that seems to be most highly recommended by my friends-- off the shelf and put it in the bullpen.

Ooof. It seems like the only way to properly describe the effect that this book had on me is to make unintelligible, grunty, despairing sounds. Oooof. Uuhhh. Shhhh. Ohhhhh. Insert long, deep, desperate sigh here.

I can't remember the last time I was so rattled by a book. At first I had to read it in small doses because of weight of every single page. This stilted progress is problematic as the book is written in teeny tiny scenes, each just a few paragraphs, sometimes a few words, and each as relatively non-descript as the next. McCarthy uses this jarring, indistinct form to mirror the daily monotony and lack of hope of the two (and practically only) characters, the man and the boy. These characters are unnamed, of course, because why would names matter in a post-apocolyptic America? They are also relatively characterless and historyless. Likewise (semi-spoiler here) we never find out what has destroyed nearly all of humanity save a few rogue bands of murderous survivors and the even fewer lone wanderers and has scorched the earth so much that dead bodies, at times, are seared to the blacktop of highways, mummified and twisted in pain.

I read the last chunk of the book in a single sitting in Starbucks. Huge mistake. Unwilling to sob in public as I turned the last few pages, I swallowed my despair and ended up haunted by it for days. Don't take that comment lightly. Quite literally, I went home, made myself comfort food, and then curled on the couch, despondant, for the rest of the evening. Simply revisiting the book right now has hurled me into a funk.

The book is more prose poetry than fiction. There are few writers who use verbs more vividly:
"When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below.
Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over
the blacktop... Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the
ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his
warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke."
Frankly, I don't know what to do with a book like this. A book about a boy of 6 or 7 who knows how to shoot himself in the mouth if he is taken captive by the murderous others. A book about an earth so destroyed that nothing-- not flora nor fauna-- survives. A book that in my opinion (in contrast to the opinions of many reviewers) ends on a note that is thoroughly devoid of even a sliver of hope-- not just for the characters, but for humanity as a whole. I can't not recommend this book. It's exquisite. But, seriously, have either a bottle of Jack Daniels and a whole lot of hangover time or the collected works of Monty Python available for you after you've finished.

No comments: