The Books: “The Road” (Cormac McCarthy)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

the_road.jpgKate and my sister Jean were the ones who made me read this book. This terrible terrifying haunting book. I read it in 2 days, I think – maybe less – not just because I couldn’t put it down, but because I was afraid to put it down, because then I would be left alone with my thoughts, and oh no, we can’t have THAT! I remember Kate saying to me, in this small scared voice over the phone, “Sheila … do you know what a catamite is?” “No, I don’t.” “I didn’t either. Now I do, and I wish I had never learned it.” “What is it?” “Just read the book.” The word “catamite” occurs once in the book, if I can recall – once. And there is no given definition – if you don’t know what it is, you have to look it up. And yeah, I looked it up, and yeah, I wish I had never learned what that word means. It’s kind of startling, because the book is written in the starkest prose possible. It’s not like Richard Powers’ books, where you need a dictionary nearby just to get through a page. So the word “catamite” pretty much SHRIEKS at you off the page – and to me, just the word itself is terrifying. The definition is terrifying, too – especially when you don’t think of it in terms of ancient history, but when you think of it in terms of your own son – and what will be done to him if you get separated – but it’s terrifying just in the context of the rest of the book, and how it is written. The word comes across like a screaming violin chord out of the silence.

If you haven’t read the book, all I can do is say: read it. I can’t say it’s a good experience. It’s a horrifying experience – but it’s a helluva book. He’s a helluva writer. (Congrats to Mr. McCarthy, by the way … it was nice seeing him there at the Oscars. I love his face.)

I grew up in fear of nuclear winter. My childhood occurred at the ass-end of the Cold War. I remember watching The Day After on television and it just haunted my dreams, stalking me … It was such a helpless feeling. To think of a nuclear bomb going off nearby – and the horror that would ensue. It all just seemed so unfair. Little children would burn up? What would we do Where would we go?

The Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. A father and son (who remain nameless) are traveling south through the ashy burnt-up landscape – trying to get to a warmer climate. They walk through what used to be the United States. The son is a young boy, 8 or 9. Tears streamed down my face as I read the book. McCarthy is (if you’ve read his other stuff) the opposite of a sentimental writer. The guy is brutal. But God, such a master. The relationship between the father and son is drawn starkly, there are long conversations – with short little sentences – the boy asking questions, the father answering. The struggle is to find canned food wherever they can. There are no other people. Or – for the most part, there are no other people. In the post-apocalypse – man has reverted to savagery. There are now clear ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. The bad guys have become cannibals. A war has gone on – for food and survival. The father and son come across small towns – where there are heads on spikes on the outskirts. If you see another human being, you do not feel joy at the fact that there is another survivor – you feel terror that this person might be a bad guy. Not to mention the whole catamite situation. Women play no part in this new world. They are barely mentioned. The father and son have a gun – with a limited amount of bullets. The father and son have been abandoned by the wife/mother … she couldn’t take it. There are flashbacks to this. The father remembers calmer times, happier times … from before the nuclear winter. But now it is just the two of them. Walking. There is snow. But everything is polluted. Nothing swims in the lakes. The water is ruined. Cormac McCarthy just creates this new world in such a nightmarish clarity – the fact that there are no colors … you ACHE for a color to show up … at least, I did. God, where is the green? Can’t we see a patch of blue? You realize, as you read it, what a miraculously beautiful world we live in. Sunsets, stars, waves, flowers … what glory it all is … how much it all would be missed.

It’s a wrenching book. It left me exhausted. There is a strange grain of hope at the very end … actually, all the way through there is a strange grain of hope … just because you love these two characters … and if they survive, then maybe there would be hope for whatever civilization will arise in the aftermath. There’s not much hope, because everything has been destroyed. Whatever will be built will take centuries … it’s all over. Mankind as we know it is over. But the father and son represent hope for humanity. Like the father says to the son, when they are shivering with cold at night, “We carry the fire with us.” He means it literally – like: we do not have fire right now, but we will be warm because “we carry the fire with us”. But he also means it in a more transcendent sense, as in – you. Me. We are the hope of the world. The fire of life, the fire of the human race, is within us. We carry it with us. No matter how bad things get.

I can’t say I enjoyed The Road. It was too upsetting. But I’ll sure never forget it. Highly recommended.

Here’s an excerpt. Father and son are in the woods … and a man comes upon them – terrifying – malevolent – and the father shoots him. The man’s head explodes all over the son’s face. The father picks up the son and they run off though the woods. The “this is my job” part below still brings me to tears.

EXCERPT FROM <The Road by Cormac McCarthy

He made two more trips into the woods, dragging armloads of brush and limbs to the bridge and pushing them over the side. He could see the glow of the fire from some distance but he didn’t think it could be seen from the other road. Below the bridge he could make out a dark pool of standing water among the rocks. A rim of shelving ice. He stood on the bridge and shoved the last pile of wood over, his breath white in the glow of the firelight.

He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and he chose a can of sausages and one of corn and he opened these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge of the fire and they sat watching the labels char and curl. When the corn began to steam he took the cans from the fire with the pliers and they sat bent over them with their spoons, eating slowly. The boy was nodding with sleep.

When they’d eaten he took the boy out on the gravelbar below the bridge and he pushed away the thin shore ice with a stick and they knelt there while he washed the boy’s face and hair. The water was so cold the boy was crying. They moved down the gravel to find fresh water and he washed his hair again as well as he could and finally stopped because the boy was moaning with the cold of it. He dried him with the blanket, kneeling there in the glow of the light with the shadow of the bridge’s understructure broken across the palisade of treetrunks beyond the creek. This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job. Then he wrapped him in the blanket and carried him to the fire.

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

He woke in the night with the cold and rose and broke up more wood for the fire. The shapes of the small treelimbs burning incandescent orange in the coals. He blew the flames to life and piled on the wood and sat with his legs crossed, leaning against the stone pier of the bridge. Heavy limestone blocks laid up without mortar. Overhead the ironwork brown with rust, the hammered rivets, the wooden sleepers and crossplanks. The sand where he sat was warm to the touch but the night beyond the fire was sharp with the cold. He got up and dragged fresh wood in under the bridge. He stood listening. The boy didn’t stir. He sat beside him and stroked his pale and tangled hair. Golden chalice, good to house a god. Please don’t tell me how the story ends. When he looked out again at the darkness beyond the bridge it was snowing.

All the wood they had to burn was small wood and the fire was good for no more than an hour and perhaps a bit more. He dragged the rest of the brush in under the bridge and broke it up, standing on the limbs and cracking them to length. He thought the noise would wake the boy but it didn’t. The wet wood hissed in the flames, the snow continued to fall. In the morning they would see if there were tracks in the road or not. This was the first human being other than the boy that he’d spoken to in more than a year. My brother at last. The reptilian calculations in those cold and shifting eyes. The gray and rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh. Who has made of the world a lie every word. When he woke again the snow had stopped and the grainy dawn was shaping out the naked woodlands beyond the bridge, the trees black against the snow. He was lying curled up with his hands between his knees and he sat up and got the fire going and he set a can of beets in the embers. The boy lay huddled on the ground watching him.

The new snow lay in skifts all through the woods, along the limbs and cupped in the leaves, all of it already gray with ash. They hiked out to where they’d left the cart and he put the knapsack in and pushed it out to the road. No tracks. They stood listening in the utter silence. Then they set out along the road through the gray slush, the boy at his side with his hands in his pockets.

They trudged all day, the boy in silence. By afternoon the slush had melted off the road and by evening it was dry. They didn’t stop. How many miles? Ten, twelve. They used to play quoits in the road with four big steel washers they’d found in a hardware store but these were gone with everything else. That night they camped in a ravine and built a fire against a small stone bluff and ate their last tin of food. He’d put it by because it was the boy’s favorite, pork and beans. They watched it bubble slowly in the coals and he retrieved the tin with the pliers and they ate in silence. He rinsed the empty tin with water and gave it to the child to drink and that was that. I should have been more careful, he said.
The boy didn’t answer.
You have to talk to me.
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.

In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.

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13 Responses to The Books: “The Road” (Cormac McCarthy)

  1. Ken says:

    …and when color does show up (like the red bandannas), it only gets worse….

    Second the recommendation.

  2. Kate says:

    Have you seen No Country for Old Men? Similarities, for sure. Tommy Lee says something along the lines of “carrying the fire” towards the end of the movie. . .

  3. Kate says:

    Oh, and totallly not on the subject, I started My Dearest Friend! (John and Abigail.) fantastic.

  4. Tommy says:

    I read this one back in December (and had to endure a couple of taunts about having the Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the front cover).

    I don’t have enough distance from it yet to say “scariest book I’ve ever read,” but I’ve put it in the top few.

    Sometimes, I read too quickly. And McCarthy’s terse, choppy prose tended to make me speed through the book. There were a couple points where I made myself go back and re-read, only to find “this really was as horrible as I thought, and only gets worse with close examination…”

    I count it second to No Country for Old Men among my favorite books from last year…not often the same author finds his way to the top two spots…

  5. Kerry says:

    Haunting, haunting, stunning book. Read it all in one sitting. Still hasn’t left me, and I don’t think it ever will. There but for the grace of God. . .

  6. I know what you mean about the Oprah sticker. For some reason I found the book hopeful and affirming. What is it that makes a person just keep going instead of walking of into the darkness? Is it love for the boy or faith in something better just around the next bend in the road?

  7. red says:

    Kate – I forgot that Tommy Lee JOnes says that in NCFOM! Yes, that was the most moving thing to me in the book. Such a difficult truth – in the middle of a nuclear winter.

  8. red says:

    Tommy –

    There were a couple points where I made myself go back and re-read, only to find “this really was as horrible as I thought, and only gets worse with close examination…”

    I had the exact same experience. I could FEEL myself skimming over things … mainly because I couldn’t stop projecting myself into the story …

    There’s the moment when the father and son are in the house (that horrible house) – and they look out the window and see a group of people approaching.

    One of the scariest moments in a book I have ever read – and McCarthy basically just writes:

    “They saw a group of people approaching.”

    You’re like: AHHHH RUN RUN RUN

  9. melissa says:

    This is not a book I’ve read, and I’m not sure I’m in a place where I could read it right now… even the exerpt is haunting me.

  10. Hank says:

    After reading your write-up about the book, the excerpt and the comments, I’ll be reading this one.


  11. Hank says:

    Just a quick note…
    The book arrived from amazon.
    Wow, this is quite riveting and bleak beyond description.

    Thanks very much for writing about it.

  12. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

    I’m not even 100 pages in to Blood Meridian and I already feel backed up with information, impulse, response … there’s so much going on, and the writing is so off the charts … that I find myself feeling almost…

  13. David Pate says:

    “The Road” is tame compare to McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”…. now that’s a scary book…

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