BOSTON — Somewhere in a log cabin in the southwestern part of this country, a strange old man sat down and dreamed up a tale to tell. He wasn’t quite looking for inspiration but rather letting the inspiration find him and through this odd process of subconscious unearthing, Cormac McCarthy discovered The Road. It’s a simple story; in an ambiguously decrepit world a man and a boy go on a journey to find a safe haven. Their resources are scarce, their vigor is fading and of the few people they encounter, the only ones they can trust are each other.
While this story is a rather particular brand of fiction, it is not entirely unlike most of McCarthy’s work. Novels such as No Country For Old Men and All The Pretty Horses contain similar literary elements such as a gritty western setting, shocking violent scenes and of course, McCarthy’s trademark writing style. Despite worldwide acclaim, McCarthy, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant and a Pulitzer prize, is a considerably private man, agreeing to the occasional interview and appearing at limited public events. It is perhaps this reclusive lifestyle and solitary working environment that allowed McCarthy to write his most recent novel with such an ominous tone.
For McCarthy and his peers, The Road’s sudden widespread popularity is a bit of a mystery and with good reason. If you aren’t familiar with McCarthy’s work, his writing style can be a bit jarring. A lack of technically proper punctuation, an onslaught of poetic run-on sentences and unusually structured dialogue will force some readers to go over every paragraph two or three times before they understand what’s being said. This technique, though unconventional and seemingly pretentious, almost acts as a metaphor for the sensations of the environment and the emotions of the characters.
For the man and the boy, life on the road is a struggle. Their situation is bewildering and the landscape is desolate. Yet somehow, at a point where all that seems important is food and shoes, the pair reaches a place of absolute perception, a view that McCarthy illustrates with literary perfection. It’s a place where the concept of balance becomes scientific and poetic, where the qualifications for “good guys” become valid and where even the setting sun is accepted as an alien being to the current state of the world.
While the pace of the novel can feel long-winded, this stylistic decision, perhaps not a conscious one for McCarthy, serves an important purpose. While some stories will begin with catchy statements and scenarios to grab the reader’s attention, The Road does not feel the need to utilize tired conventions. On the contrary, the first 10 pages of the book are filled with oddly structured poetic descriptions of a vague world not completely unfamiliar but certainly not ordinary. As you are forced to assimilate to the text you experience something that wavers between frustration and boredom. Then, after just the right amount of this awkward hopeless emotion, all the while feeling inexplicably compelled, McCarthy gives you exactly what you have been waiting for and suddenly you know that couldn’t turn back if you tried.
Somewhere beyond the slow tempo, lack of punctuation and unending adjectives is an even greater discomfort: the overwhelming and frequent theme of gruesome violence and impending fatality. While these are subjects that most people wouldn’t choose to read about, McCarthy manages to avoid the pure shock value of the topics and gives each ghastly moment and every word of mortality an indistinct yet definite purpose. With McCarthy there is no such thing as gore for the sake of gore but rather there are repugnant circumstances that drive desperate people to reexamine their values.
Yet, as grim and harrowing as the story may be, the quiet simplicity of a father and son’s compassion amidst the utter devastation of a corpse-strewn, ashen land has enabled McCarthy to fashion one of the most enigmatically profound novels of our time. And despite its unfortunate place on Oprah Winfrey’s notorious Book Club list, this novel is not for every stay-at-home mom who wants something to chat about during play dates. Yes, the father is amorous and devoted, and yes, the son is endearing in his virtue but no, their tale is not without extreme distress and agony. Reading this book requires a strong stomach and an even stronger heart and it’s not to be taken lightly. It can’t be explained casually and it can’t be discussed frivolously. Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road in an act of discovery and the book is meant to be read in the same way.