The first time I heard about Author Cormac McCarthy was when Billy Bob Thornton directed Matt Damon in the movie version of All The Pretty Horses.
On a side note, I hear Billy Bob was more than a little pissed off that his 3-hour opus was edited by the Weinsteins and released at a mere 2 hours. I would’ve loved to see Thornton's version, because I hear it stays true to the overall feel of McCarthy's novel.
Then, a couple years ago, the Coen Brothers announced they were shooting a movie called No Country for Old Men based on another McCarthy novel.
"Hmm," I thought to myself. "I’m going to have to pick up one of his books."
Finally, Oprah Winfrey picked McCarthy’s latest novel The Road for her precious Book Club. She even visited the reclusive author for a one-hour interview to talk about the book. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of Winfrey. But I will say that she is getting people to read. And, even if it is mostly Baby Boomer white women, I’m happy to see novels getting their due attention on the national platform. Plus she had a couple good picks in the past including The Corrections, The Color Purple and The Grapes of Wrath.
That was that. My interest was piqued. I picked up The Road on Amazon.com and devoured it in less than a month. (Hey, I'm a slow reader with very little time on my hands!)
So, how was it? Well, it’s very dark, very depressing, very bleak and very good.
From page one, you realize something ain't right in Denmark. The human population has exponentially been wiped from the Earth. How or Why? The reader is never told. There are whispers of ashes flying through the steel-gray sky to hint that there could have been a possible nuclear war. Plus, the absence of animals, including birds, deer and other wildlife, hint that possibly there was some sort of viral flu epidemic that swept the world and destroyed the land. Another possible theory is that a meteor struck the Earth, hurling ash into the atmosphere and instantly killing 99% of the Earth’s population including animals. Who really knows. To be honest, does it even matter? I don't really think so.
In any event, we’re thrown into the life of a father (no name throughout the book) and his son, who are pushing a cart down the road and headed South to warmer climate and some sort of happiness. From my point of view, I would say the book takes place on the East coast. Possibly Virginia. Maybe North Carolina or even West Virginia.
Throughout the book, they have some interesting run-ins with characters including survivors described by the son as "the bad guys". In a sense you feel that some of these "bad guys" are harvesting humans to eat. Although most of the cannibalism is insinuated, there are a few well-written scenes that set the tension meter high. In fact, there is a terrifying scene in a basement of a house midway through the book that still resonates in my brain.
There aren’t too many horrific scenes. However, there are just enough to make the reader comprehend that the world has changed. The rules have changed. And it’s a violent world where every man and woman are, pretty much, on their own. It’s almost like humans are deer running around in the wild scavenging for food. To put it bluntly, this is the father and son's life. And, in a nutshell, this is the book. Traveling around. Looking for food. Finding shelter. Hiding from strangers on the road. Defending themselves at all costs.
The young son is thrown into this seemingly uncaring, terrifying world with no sunshine, no fun, no school, no friends and, most importantly, no motherly love. While the father, who coughs up bloody clots every morning, is dealing with his own demons and slowly coming to grips with his own mortality. It’s a truly shocking reality that, I suppose, all of us must face when Death comes a knockin'.
Personally, as a reader and a father of two kids, I began to ask myself some rather blunt questions as I delved deeper and deeper into the novel. What would I do if I were thrust into this situation? Where would I go? Would I kill? What is the point of life? Why are we here? Why are we even trying to survive? What kind of advice could I instill into my kids that times would get better?
The ending, however, gives the reader a glimmer of hope that humanity, perhaps, will continue. But, by that time, you’ll be asking yourself the question "Is it all worth it anyway."
The writing is extremely simplistic, but effective. And highlighted by the fact that there are no quotation marks throughout the book. At times this can be a bit frustrating, especially if you're a copywriter. The conversations between the father and the son are brutally honest and very realistic. Nothing in McCarthy's writing seems to be forced. There are no flashy words and the prose is very straight-forward. In fact, it almost reads as a blow-by-blow journal of thoughts and actions of the father, told in a third-person point of view.
On a personal note, after reading the book I attempted to write a short story that mimicked McCarthy’s prose in The Road. (Enter Price is Right failure song here) Not a chance. It's truly difficult to write this way. Like I said, it may seem simplistic, but the author chooses his words as carefully as a master chef chooses ingredients for an award-winning dish.
I heard the McCarthy thought up the idea for the book when he was traveling with his young son. He was in a motel, looking out the window. He glanced to his son, who was sleeping on the bed, then glanced back to the window and imagined the hills on fire. That's when the whole novel hit him like a ton of bricks.
There you have it. The Road is a fantastic read. McCarthy is a great master of his craft. And I strongly urge you to pick up a copy and see for yourself.
FILM NOTE: Numerous movie web sites have reported that a film based on The Road is in the works with John Hillcoat set to direct. For all of those unaware, Hillcoat directed The Proposition, a gritty psuedo-western set in Australia. It’s also rumored that Viggo Mortensan or Guy Pearce will play the father. From a movie point of view, the book reminds me of a mixture of Se7en, The Unforgiven, Saving Private Ryan and Mad Max if they were all directed by Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, Badlands). All I can say, is I hope they stay very, very close to the feel of the book.