Holy Crap, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is Bleak

I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

The Road tells a simple story. A boy and his father walk some along a road in a dead America, years after a nuclear holocaust. An eternal nuclear winter has set in. Nearly everything that’s not human–every plant, bird, fish, mammal–has died. The world is two colours–grey and black. Nothing has a name–not towns, states, not even the characters in the book.

The novel is relentlessly, unapologetically bleak. The two characters live on hope alone, and we see that thin hope ravaged again and again. It’s beautifully-written, but the unceasing gloominess can be a bit trying. If Samuel Beckett wrote a post-apocalyptic novel, it might read like this. Only, Beckett’s work would be a bit cheerier.

This was the first McCarthy book I’ve ever read. I tried to get into Blood Meridian a couple of times, but it never took. His diction is extraordinary–he seems to choose exactly the right word every time. Here’s Janet Maslin in The New York Times

Since the cataclysm has presumably incinerated all dictionaries, Mr. McCarthy’s affinity for words like rachitic and crozzled has as much visceral, atmospheric power as precise meaning. His use of language is as exultant as his imaginings are hellish, a hint that “The Road” will ultimately be more radiant than it is punishing. Somehow Mr. McCarthy is able to hold firm to his pessimism while allowing the reader to see beyond it. This is art that both frightens and inspires.

Though it’s filled with the details of survival, he still manages to maintain a sparseness to his story. I admired the tension he achieved between the minutiae of the protagonists’ daily lives, and the epic disaster that surrounded them.

The sparseness reminded me of Hemingway, and Jennifer Egan mentions him frequently in her review of the book for Slate:

The man, who goes unnamed, is an outdoorsman in the Hemingway tradition. His savvy and wits kept him alive through the apocalypse–he began filling a bathtub with water as soon as he heard the explosions–and have sustained him and his son through the following years of misrule by marauding gangs of thugs who steal, kill, and eat the only fresh food still available: human flesh. His keen instincts rescue the pair several times over the course of the book as they head south, toward the coast, hoping for warmer weather. He’s good at building and repairing things, and McCarthy enumerates the mechanics of this work with a meditative absorption that evokes Hemingway.

I wanted to single out Tom Stechschulte, an actor who narrated the audiobook. ‘Narrated’ is actually the wrong verb–he performed it. His voice work added a richness and depth to the book that made it all the more enjoyable. He reminded me a bit of George Guidall, who narrated Stephen King’s Dark Tower books.

I grabbed a little excerpt (MP3) that highlights Stechschulte’s great voice (there’s no dialogue in it, but you can get the idea) and McCarthy’s fantastic prose.



  1. Oh wow!
    I just read The Road last month on the way back from Vancouver! It was one of those desperate airport book purchases. I read almost the whole book on the flight to Toronto…
    The *adventure* with the father and son at the ocean, with the sailboat still sticks with me now.

  2. I just read the book as well and I had a similar reaction to it. Got it after hearing David Plotz mention it on the Slate Politcal Gabfest and was intrigued.

    I haven’t read a book for a long time that I read so compulsively.

    BTW, there’s now a movie in production, looks like it could be interesting:

  3. Dude, that’s creepy. That’s exactly why I bought the book. I’d been aware of it before the Gabfest, but was reminded of it by Plotz’s mention.

    The movie does look interesting. How could you cast anybody else but Viggo Mortensen in the role?

  4. The book made me ill. I read it relentlessly all in one go looking for some sort of relief and, obviously, found none. Just thinking about it makes me ill and, unless I missed something in the ending, I do not think this will translate into a movie without some major story changes. ILL, I tell you. It really screwed with my head and completely affected my mood… I’m going to stop thinking about it now as I am supposed to be writing and this is not the head space I want to be in!

  5. The Road was the first McCarthy book I read, too. When I went back home to visit (in Virginia), I was reminded — over and over again — of the book as I drove around on interstates and side roads. I relate to everyone’s creep-factor, it’s definitely one book that stays with you.

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