Saturday, June 27, 2009

Book Six: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Let me just get this out of the way -- read this book. It is well written, is powerful, is moving, and is haunting. McCarthy has established himself as one of the major contemporary writers, even though I was not convinced. Consider me convinced! The Road deals with a father and son traveling "the road" after life as we know it on earth is wiped out. There are people alive, but not many and few of them are the "good guys." Food is scare, forcing people into a nomadic existence in which they must fight for survival. In other words, the aftermath of whatever destruction was wrought looks a lot like how humans used to live, but with a lot less sunshine (and lots of ashes -- this is one bleak setting).

As a father this book carries some extra weight, but I cannot see anyone reading it and not being impacted. The father has taught the son how to kill himself with the one bullet left should something happen to the father. He has also made a commitment to kill the son if the he (the father) will no longer survive. This is not given as a central element, but unfolds during the book creating additional tension. The son is young, and although no age is given (that I remember) I place him around nine or ten, which is conveniently the age of one of my sons. The relationship is touching and as realistic as one could imagine in that setting. The love between them is made clearer because of the alien setting -- sometimes the familiar looks new when seen from a different angle.

To say more about the plot will give more away than I wish, so I'll avoid that. But the themes in this book are multiple and soul searching. What makes life worth living, or in other words, what is the meaning of life? Father and son are each others world, so is there a world if one of them ceases to exist? What is "good" and "bad?" What is the point of the journey if the path is so horrible? What is the point of the journey if the end is not what you want? What is the relationship between parent-child, father-son? Is there a God? If so, explain evil? What is our responsibility to others? What constitutes love? Are there limits to love?

I could literally keep going on and any one of these would destroy most writers. McCarthy does trip on the cliche now and then, but he has so little dialogue that he allows the reader to insert their thoughts. It would also be easy to superimpose a great deal of symbolism here, but I avoid symbolic readings whenever possible -- I've never been much of a riddle fan. Whenever you get a father, a son, and something they call "the fire" inside, well, the Christian symbols are screaming at you. But if someone tries to read that out then by the end of the book they will be greatly confused.

McCarthy succeeds because he has combined a great story with great ideas. If you want to focus on the story, you'll love it. If you want to use it as a springboard for greater thought, you'll love it. If you read it for all the answers, forget it. McCarthy raises questions that will stick with you for a long time, which defy easy answers (and in many cases answers at all), and which everyone needs to consider.

Reading Challenges
Good books make life easy. This is a short read (287 pages of large font) and I was way ahead of schedule. I was worried that the end of the week would get too busy so I read more up front and ended up just having a bit to finish on Friday (as opposed to Sunday). I was anxious to get back to it so this turned out to be an easy week.

Next Up
I really don't know! I just started a Chinese novel called Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong and I really like it. However, is over 500 pages of small font and the writing is, well--dense is not the right word, full (?) so it takes time and deserves time. I'm not going to finish this in a week so I toyed with just blowing my weekly read, but I'm not ready to do that. I'll read this book in parts until I get to a point where I can read what is left in a week.

I have two back to back book sets to tackle. First, Pride and Prejudice (which can never be read too often) and then the Zombie version of Pride and Prejudice after that (my oldest son has a knack for strange and unusual). I also want to read Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles again because there is another book, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, about how Holmes blew the Baskerville case. I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan thanks to my oldest brother buying me the books at the Saugatuck bookstore "Call Me Ishamel" and leaving me to read while he spent a couple of hours looking at books. I read a lot of stories on Sunday afternoons in that bookstore. I may be able to read both of the Holmes releated books in one week, but I have yet to get the other book.

So...after perusing my bookshelf I've landed on The Known World byEdward P. Jones, which won the Pulitzer a few years ago. Actually not a whole lot easier than Wolf Totem, but I'm not afraid of a challenge. This will also break my fiction/non-fiction rotation which had unexpectedly crept in, and I'll get through that change without any counseling required.

Happy reading!


  1. The question of whether there is a God (when they meet Eli) was one of the more thought-provoking parts of the book - if humanity disappears, so does God, Eli asserts. So, that implies that God is a human construct, and therefore doesn't really exist? Interesting to think about...

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