Bleak. Unremitting. Is to the road trip book what THE HILLS HAVE EYES was to the family vacation movie. And as far as post-apocalyptic stuff goes, Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD makes you see what a happy fantasy A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ was, how tame DR. BLOODMONEY was. That that road in THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER was gold brick.
Anyway, though this is a non-review like all the others, still, some steering if you’ll take it: read THE ROAD in five hours or less, all in one sitting. That way you don’t have to be sad and/or suicidal for the whole afternoon. Not that it doesn’t stick with you, but, just to sanitize your mind, you can try to poke holes in your memory of it anyway: if the wheelbarrow turns back into a cart for no real reason, does that make this all not real? if the apostrophes aren’t perfectly consistent, does that make THE ROAD a more constructed thing? Not really, no. It is fun to try to resist it, though, this book. To say it’s all just set-up — that, in a landscape this dark, even a spark seen from miles away can be enough to melt your heart once and forever. That it’s all about that spark, really.
All of which is to say it made me sad. As it was supposed to, I suspect. As everybody knows from their first ten or twenty stories, though, being sad’s easy. Too easy, almost. You fall into the tragic endings without even meaning to, just because they’re more ‘real,’ right? The trick, though, of course, it’s not about tragedy or comedy or any of that, it’s about cycling through a story in such a way that the end satisfies (ie, answers all the questions asked up front, follows through on the promises, surprises us in some inevitable, non-cheating way, etc), even if that ‘satisfaction’ takes the form of us not wanting that end. If that makes any sense. Which is just build-up of course for the real question here: does THE ROAD satisfy? I mean, yeah, it’s McCarthy, so the prose is hammered until it shines in that perfect, dull way, the scenes are all properly clipped, the dialogue’s a kind of succinct that makes us all think everybody in the book hates every other body. None of which is any kind of surprise: it’s what we slap our twenty dollars (or, our library card) down for. And, compared to his last two books, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and CITIES OF THE PLAIN [I’m not forgetting one, am I?], THE ROAD’s a definite improvement, I think. And as compared to, say, ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, THE ROAD’s just much, much better. But BLOOD MERIDIAN? I’d hesitate to say it’s better than BLOOD MERIDIAN. Maybe right alongside SUTTREE, say, though everywhere SUTTREE’s liquid and green, THE ROAD is ashy and granular. A different book, yeah.
But does it satisfy? Yeah. I mean, sure, all it is is a short story that kept rolling and rolling like some GODOT sketch, but it’s complete, it’s whole, in a totally organic way. And I say that without wearing a crystal around my neck. I mean, my one beef with McCarthy — aside from his apostrophe-stuff — has always been that the stories never match up with the prose. CHILD OF GOD and BLOOD MERIDIAN and maybe OUTER DARK are the only ones I can think of where the story and the prose have been properly balanced. And now, THE ROAD. The story’s not just some tired old framework to hang the language on, and the language doesn’t get in the way of the story. They complement each other perfectly this time around, and seem to be coming from the same source. Which is what good writing’s all about. And more than that, even, as with BLOOD MERIDIAN, here the story even has a kind of . . . I hesitate to say message, or moral, or any of that. But you do take something from this anyway. At least I did. A different way of looking at things. Which is a lot for something that only lasted five hours, especially when for one of those hours I was watching a special about giant fish and the men who landed them. Too, of course, THE ROAD has me thinking pretty serious about buying extra bricks of ammo next time around, then squirreling them away here and there and around. Just to be on the safe side.
Â©Stephen Graham Jones, 2006