Monday, April 23, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

A couple of days ago I finished reading The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I was particularly excited to read it because it was at the cross-section of two of the most powerful forces in publishing: Oprah picked it for her book club, hence the gaping "O" sticker on the cover, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. I love the Pulitzer prize, but in recent years, I feel that it has gone to these small, modest character studies (see Gilead, March) where intense introspection occurs in front of a rainy window, yet nothing seems to transpire. I like a novel that is ambitious - some big, brawny book spanning decades, where the author tries to take the ideal of the Great American Novel and wrestle it in between two covers (see Middlesex, Kavalier and Clay). So I was excited when the Pulitzer chose this book, and I was excited that Oprah's blessing upon it moved the paperback publishing date up by about six months.

I read this novel over the course of three weeknights, from midnight to two in the morning. It was one of the most bleak books I've ever read: about the sojourn of an unnamed man and his son through a near-future, post-apocalyptic America. In the wake of some horrible undisclosed nightmare, when the planet and most of humanity have perished, this man is hoping to follow the road to the coast, where hopefully something better will await him and his son. As they encounter other stragglers and scavenge abandoned homes and towns, details emerge of the hellish world that has reconstituted itself in the face of utter disaster: roving gangs, slavery, cannibalism. Out of chaos, this order has formed.

The redemptive quality of the book comes from the bond between father and son, the father's selfless and ingenious devotion to the boy. The father can remember the world before this disastrous event occurred; he can remember the boy's mother and knows why she is not with them. But he protects his son from these facts, and tries to teach the child decency and compassion when these ideas are completely untethered from their reality. His love for the child is so bright that it carries the novel forward.

Now, several days after I reached the last page, I'm still thinking about the book and wondering what happened to its protagonists. It was the most harrowing book I've read. I read it as L slept beside me, and when I finally put it down, my eyes weary but my mind racing, I would sleep with a hand on her shoulder or around her waist to remind me that the book was not real, and that I was safe in my cozy yellow bedroom with my wife in our too-small bed.

I have always been superstitious about the talismanic power of books. As a kid I couldn't sleep with the cover of a Stephen King novel facing upwards on my nightstand. When I read American Psycho a couple years ago, the most unredeemably horrifying book I had ever encountered, I wouldn't keep it in my bedroom, and when I finally finished it, I dropped it into a trashcan on the street the next day. I didn't want it in my home.

With The Road, I placed it face-down on the dresser at the end of each night. One of the reasons I read so late into the morning hours was that if I encountered an idea or a passage that was especially bleak or gruesome, I couldn't stop there - I had to create more distance between myself and the offending paragraphs. In a way I was on my own journey to parallel that of the characters, searching for the same happy ending (to use a pat phrase) that they sought.

With that said, I can't recommend this book highly enough. I don't think it's for everyone (I think L would chuck it out the window), but it does fit in nicely with some of the other dystopian literature I've been encountering lately. I read this book after reading EB White's wry and wistful essays, and now I've moved on to more of Joan Didion's acerbic and incisive prose. But The Road has stayed with me; I've picked it up to read the first few pages again, to try to see how McCarthy did it. In the face of such disaster and horror, his ability to find love and bravery for two unknown people recalled the best of what his characters had lost, the best of what we all could lose.

I will also say this: this is the ballsiest book club choice Oprah has ever made. The ladies are about to get their socks knocked off.

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