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The Road Paperback – March 28, 2007
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Best known for his Border Trilogy, hailed in the San Francisco Chronicle as "an American classic to stand with the finest literary achievements of the century," Cormac McCarthy has written ten rich and often brutal novels, including the bestselling No Country for Old Men, and The Road. Profoundly dark, told in spare, searing prose, The Road is a post-apocalyptic masterpiece, one of the best books we've read this year, but in case you need a second (and expert) opinion, we asked Dennis Lehane, author of equally rich, occasionally bleak and brutal novels, to read it and give us his take. Read his glowing review below. --Daphne Durham
Guest Reviewer: Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane, master of the hard-boiled thriller, generated a cult following with his series about private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, wowed readers with the intense and gut-wrenching Mystic River, blew fans all away with the mind-bending Shutter Island, and switches gears with Coronado, his new collection of gritty short stories (and one play).
Cormac McCarthy sets his new novel, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic blight of gray skies that drizzle ash, a world in which all matter of wildlife is extinct, starvation is not only prevalent but nearly all-encompassing, and marauding bands of cannibals roam the environment with pieces of human flesh stuck between their teeth. If this sounds oppressive and dispiriting, it is. McCarthy may have just set to paper the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war, and in this recent age of relentless saber-rattling by the global powers, it's not much of a leap to feel his vision could be not far off the mark nor, sadly, right around the corner. Stealing across this horrific (and that's the only word for it) landscape are an unnamed man and his emaciated son, a boy probably around the age of ten. It is the love the father feels for his son, a love as deep and acute as his grief, that could surprise readers of McCarthy's previous work. McCarthy's Gnostic impressions of mankind have left very little place for love. In fact that greatest love affair in any of his novels, I would argue, occurs between the Billy Parham and the wolf in The Crossing. But here the love of a desperate father for his sickly son transcends all else. McCarthy has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries. In The Road, those batteries are almost out--the entire world is, quite literally, dying--so the final affirmation of hope in the novel's closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father's (and McCarthy's) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place, the oddest of all things: faith. --Dennis Lehane
"His tale of survival and the miracle of goodness only adds to McCarthy's stature as a living master. It's gripping, frightening and, ultimately, beautiful. It might very well be the best book of the year, period." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Vivid, eloquent . . . The Road is the most readable of [McCarthy's] works, and consistently brilliant in its imagining of the posthumous condition of nature and civilization." —The New York Times Book Review
"One of McCarthy's best novels, probably his most moving and perhaps his most personal." —Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Illuminated by extraordinary tenderness. . . . Simple yet mysterious, simultaneously cryptic and crystal clear. The Road offers nothing in the way of escape or comfort. But its fearless wisdom is more indelible than reassurance could ever be." —The New York Times
"No American writer since Faulkner has wandered so willingly into the swamp waters of deviltry and redemption. . . . [McCarthy] has written this last waltz with enough elegant reserve to capture what matters most." —The Boston Globe
"There is an urgency to each page, and a raw emotional pull . . . making [The Road] easily one of the most harrowing books you'll ever encounter. . . . Once opened, [it is] nearly impossible to put down; it is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive. . . . The Road is a deeply imagined work and harrowing no matter what your politics." —Bookforum
"We find this violent, grotesque world rendered in gorgeous, melancholic, even biblical cadences. . . . Few books can do more; few have done better. Read this book." —Rocky Mountain News
"A dark book that glows with the intensity of [McCarthy's] huge gift for language. . . . Why read this? . . . Because in its lapidary transcription of the deepest despair short of total annihilation we may ever know, this book announces the triumph of language over nothingness." —Chicago Tribune
"The love between the father and the son is one of the most profound relationships McCarthy has ever written."
—The Christian Science Monitor
"The Road is a wildly powerful and disturbing book that exposes whatever black bedrock lies beneath grief and horror. Disaster has never felt more physically and spiritually real." —Time
"The Road is the logical culmination of everything [McCarthy]'s written." —Newsweek
"It's hard to think of [an apocalypse tale] as beautifully, hauntingly constructed as this one. McCarthy possesses a massive, Biblical vocabulary and he unleashes it in this book with painterly effect. . . . The Road takes him to a whole new level. . . . It will grip even the coldest human heart." —The Star-Ledger (Newark)
"McCarthy is a gutsy, powerful storyteller. . . . The writing throughout is magnificent." —Chicago Sun-Times
"Devastating. . . . McCarthy has never seemed more at home, more eloquent, than in the sere, postapocalyptic ash land of The Road. . . . Extraordinarily lovely and sad. . . . [A] masterpiece." —Entertainment Weekly
"His most compelling, moving and accessible novel since All the Pretty Horses. . . . McCarthy brilliantly captures the knife edge that fugitives in a hostile world stand on. . . . Amid this Godot-like bleakness, McCarthy shares something vital and enduring about the boy's spirit, his father's love and the nature of bravery itself." —USA Today
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Second, I don't need plot. I don't need action. Hell, I don't even need a complete explanation of what happened to the world. I wasn't expecting any of these. What I was thinking I was going to get was a story with characters that we knew and could know something about. The problem is that we learned nothing about them. Who was the dad? What did he use to do before the world? How did he even meet his wife? What about the son? Who knows? Who cares? That is the last question you'll be asking yourself.
With no Character development, there had to be some plot. But the thing is there wasn't any. They just walked endlessly. It was tedious. But they didn't have anything new to do. Walk, set up camp, find food, wake up, walk. No discussion of any feelings or opinions or any insight to what this man was thinking about any of these situations.
There were some themes to play around with here, but guess what? Without a plot, then without character development, the conflict that exists is obviously going to be nil. There was no chance to really show off any themes or commentary on them.
After all this, I have to say this book is worthless. It was an empty read. I took nothing away, I didn't get any enjoyment out of it, I didn't EVEN get sadness or depression or being upset. The most that happened was me being disappointed, but that isn't something I like after reading a book, definitely when it is about the book itself.
The author wrote. Short sentences. Clipped and cold, like the air of his novel. Ash covering everything. He stumbled forward.
Why dont we use apostrophes, Papa?
I dont know. We dont use quotation marks either.
Is it confusing?
Maybe. But we do use pathetic fallacy.
What's pafethic phallacy?
Pathetic fallacy. "To signify any description of inanimate natural objects that ascribes to them human capabilities, sensations, and emotions."
Oh. Like the weather? Like nature?
Yes, like nature.
Does it hate us?
No, it doesn't hate us. But the author does. He wants to manipulate emotional responses in readers to our relationship by making us suffer. He wants to explore me, an ordinary man, in an extraordinary circumstance.
Is it interesting?
He made the characters fashion shoes out of refuse, light fires, look for food, lay listening, push the cart, and sleep together in the cold. Again and again. And again for good measure. And once more. And he aped B-movie plot devices. Hidden fallout shelter. Headless baby on a spit. Limb-by-limb cannabalism (as senseless as that is). The capsized ship. Marching, chained catamites.
There is no cliche in the literature's long history that is not honored here throughout. Whatever form they spoke of they were included. Mad Max interrupted by King James Tourette's . And you knew all along that terms like "stunning", "savage beauty", "terrifying", "trenchant", "cautionary", and "wisdom" would pop up in reviews like bingo calls at the Pretentious Reviewer Retirement Home.
The ashen prose covered everything. But then, in fits, the lyricism would appear like a blossom on a turd with the Germanic sprouting into Latinate. The reticulate sky would wrinkle its vermiculate back to expose a cloying sentimentality lacquered by logorrhea--a cheesy mysticism lurking behind the cracked, Naturalistic veneer. But here the sun never rose, for the old man and his scion, the bell tolled and all wrapped up in a startling deus ex via as the hooded, stoven-boned veteran hove into view and whisked our boy off to some humming deep-glen mystery older than man.
As with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, all of the doomsday clocks, both personal and communal, stop at 1:17, a reference to John 1:17 in the Book of Revelations. As with his previous novel, McCarthy names love as the one value worth living for in this vale of tears, the last thing to go.
Comic relief is provided in the form of Ely, the only named character in the book. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether they think that Ely is the prophet Elijah, Christ in ragged disguise, Buddha on the Road, or just a funny old man who speaks in koans.
THE ROAD will remind some of Jose Saramago's BLINDNESS, which won the Nobel Prize for that deserving author. Others will liken the beautiful writing to the very best of Ernest Hemingway--with the understatement one finds in BIG, TWO-HEARTED RIVER and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.
Cliched? Not in this reader's eyes. Of course the great themes here have been rendered before in the classics, and books are made of books. I immediately recognized Homer's ghosts of hades in here, pointing and pleading and crying for help.
What is the quote in THE ROAD on page 110? "Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it." Which resonates to a quote from Marcus Aurielius, saying that a man ought to live his life as if borrowed, and that he ought to be prepared at any time to give it back, saying--here, I thank you for this life which I have had in my possession.
I found it uplifting. A testament to the condition of humanity and the nature of death and the riddle of existence. Universal themes, the greatest themes in our literature.