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
Spotlight customer reviews:
Customer Rating: Summary: Misunderstood by detractors, a clearly brilliant literary work Comment: The handful of one-star reviews seemed to miss the point. The repetitive plot points and desolate wasteland illustrated optimism and the endearing force of human love, not a depressing world where man is monster. Actually, Cormac dances the line between both views, and it's not a new theme: humanity is both godly and demonic, both divine and absurd. This desolate landscape is utterly beautiful in its ugliness, and so are the people. As author, Cormac brilliantly combines gritty reality with a fantasy vision that is clearly meant to be no more than an apocalyptic metaphor--not a thrill ride. This is a short, gripping read that will haunt you and you won't forget it. The nameless father and "the boy" offer the ultimate symbolism in the end. To me, the "man" is all of men and the "boy" represents "innocence." These aren't so much people, as ideolograms. Yet, the are real for all that, too. You will read this in one sitting, and won't stop for lunch or dinner. It will not make a good movie, in spite of wondrous visuals, simply because it's not meant to be a movie, but as literature this is art. Yes, if you want thrills and chills, go elsewhere, perhaps to Stephen King's classic THE STAND, but for haunting artistry, don't miss THE ROAD. P.S. Although the lack of "dialogue punctuation" and apostrophes bothered me a little initially, I quickly became use to this style. With a cast of virtually two (there are more than two characters, but only two that really matter), it was fine, almost like reading a play or movie script. The over use of the dialogue "Okay" was also initially annoying, but quickly became a stylism, too. Clearly, that could be the way two people--who have only each other for company, year after year-- might learn to communicate. And Cormac can do it because he's a master. But if I could change one thing, I would be tempted to add "quotations." Customer Rating: Summary: Pure and haunting Comment: If you are a father to a son, prepare yourself. This book will hit you hard. It will stay with you long after you've turned the last page. If you've read the author's other work, also be prepared. This one's colder in more ways than one. Customer Rating: Summary: Didn't captivate me like I thought it would.. Comment: Upon reading the reviews for this book and the plot summary, I bought this book thinking that it would be one of those that I just fell into love with. I was horribly wrong. It was very difficult to read, not because of how it is written, but mostly because it was boring and there was really no climax in the book. I kept waiting, but in the end I was truly disappointed. I will say this.. McCarthy is very talented in his choice of words. If he were to write a collection of poetry, I would buy it and most definitely enjoy it. Otherwise, I will probably not read any more books by Mr. McCarthy simply for the fact that this story failed to grab my attention. Customer Rating: Summary: Decent but occasionally overwritten mashup of literary & pulp fiction Comment: The Road is a literary mash up composed of equal parts William Faulkner, Raymond Carver, Samuel Beckett, and pulp sci-fi. This sounds great on paper but works only about 50% of the time.
For the first 25-30 pages of The Road my BS detector rang like a fire alarm. It soon quieted down, but ultimately the things I disliked about the book--it's egregiously overwritten in places and some of McCarthy's more "experimental" techniques seem arbitrary --kept me from fully appreciating its virtues. It took James Wood's definitive review in The New Republic to help me see what there is to like about it. Wood praises The Road for: the way the McCarthy taps into a post 9/11 fear of apocalypse; his combination of an ornate lyricism a'la William Faulkner with the deadpan minimalism of Raymond Carver; and for McCarthy's rigorous attempt to imagine what a post-apocalyptic world would look and feel like. The Road doesn't extrapolate a dystopian future from some present fear or potential calamity. Rather it plops its characters down in a world engulfed by some kind of nuclear winter (the cause of the catastrophe is never specified) and obsessively imagines what that world would look and feel like.
Despite these virtues, there's just something about the way The Road is executed that puts me off. Critics praise McCarthy for his linguistic inventiveness, and there are some beautiful passages in The Road, but the writing often struck me as showy rather than inventive. I mean, what's so "inventive" about the arbitrary splicing together of two words? How much linguistic creativity does it take to call a cash register a cashregister, or a pump organ a pumporgan. Such devices occur frequently enough to annoy but not often enough to add much to the musicality of the prose. Then there's the frequent use of antiquated words: gryke, discalced, scribing, laved, etc. There's nothing wrong with this in principle--writers should make maximum use of the linguistic resources available to them. A generous interpretation of this tic would be that it adds to the sense of inhabiting a time that's spiritually detached from the present, or makes the point that the future involves regression rather than progress. But it struck me as showy and gratuitous--a kind of screw you to 21st century sub-literates.
The other thing that bugged me was the frequent dropping of profundity bombs--brief portentous statements tacked onto the end of a paragraph that hint at philosophical or religious themes. Two problems with these: First, they are almost always duds; they are never developed and rarely explode into meaning. Second, they often come wrapped in convoluted syntax that I suspect obscures their banality. So, in this case, is McCarthy tweaking the language to make the banal sound profound?
Despite these misgivings I liked the book and found it hard to put down. When McCarthy stays in his minimalist register the writing is quite good. He definitely creates a mood, and many of the word-pictures he paints, especially when describing landscapes or the objects necessary to the two main characters' survival, are quite beautiful. And I do have to give him props, as Wood notes, for advancing the post-apocalypse sub-genre by creating a remorselessly unedifying world in which our present concerns have almost completely faded from memory. Most of the dialogue in The Road is banal in the extreme, and the characters are almost completely without inner lives. But give McCarthy credit for credibly representing the psychological reality of a world in which the things that support inner lives--history, culture, community, an unacknowledged but ever present sense that humanity will extend into the indefinite future--have all but disappeared. McCarthy doesn't tell us how to avoid the apocalypse, but he gives us a pretty good sense of how we'll be spending our days when it comes. Customer Rating: Summary: Not up to McCarthy's usual standards Comment: I normally like McCarthy's books but this one doesn't make any sense. Why would every living thing but way too many starving humans be killed by whatever it is that happened? And why does he leave it a mystery what the cause of the mass extinction was?