Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 multiple-award-winning book. I read the Vintage International first edition.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
The man and the boy struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic United States.
The Road is a strange one.
My first pass at a review was neutral, verging on negative. But, to let you in on a secret, I type up my first drafts of these reviews at least a month before posting. Time can shift my opinion and I haven’t stopped thinking about The Road since I finished it. Scenes are sticking with me in a way I didn’t expect. It is a good book, better than I initially gave it credit for. But it is not as great as some claim. And it is not for everybody.
The style is the hardest hurdle. McCarthy uses very little punctuation – no quotations and almost no commas or apostrophes. There are no chapters; the story exists in moments, many less than a page. McCarthy avoids the words “was” or “were.” I understand this is his style, but punctuation is helpful for communicating ideas. So are full sentences.
If we had an uneducated first-person narrator, I would understand the stylistic decisions (still wouldn’t love them), but there’s no excuse for this book to use them. None. Any time I am forced to re-read sections in fiction because of functional misunderstanding of what is being said, and by who, the author has failed.
The set-up is interesting but once established, you could fairly say that nothing really happens in The Road. The relationship between father and son does not evolve. The man loves the boy and the boy is usually afraid or listless. That’s it.
This frustrated me while reading. Now, a month later, I realize it was the point. The Road is bleak. Be prepared for that if you’re going to jump in.
 McCarthy creates some words by mashing others together. Most make sense. This one didn’t:
Oil for their little slutlamp.
Why? Honestly, what does this mean?
He descended into a gryke in the stone.
Alternate spelling for grike, possibly:
noun – a solution fissure, a vertical crack about .5 m wide formed by the dissolving of limestone by water, that divides an exposed limestone surface into sections or clints.
He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
You forget some things dont you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.
The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.
 I am always hesitant with heavy-handed Literature because of groaners like this:
A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire like the last host of christendom.
It’s too much.
He pulled the bolt and bored out the collet with a hand drill.
noun – 1. a segmented band or sleeve put around a shaft or spindle and tightened so as to grip it.
2. a flange or socket for setting a gem in jewelry.
In an old batboard smokehouse they found a ham gambreled up in a high corner.
He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and death.
 Now, this is where I start understanding McCarthy might have something. This passage puts me on his side and sweeps away the hesitation note  put in my heart.
She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned.
They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order.
adjective – denoting or belonging to one of several strict orders of Catholic friars or nuns who go barefoot or wear only sandals.
The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the night and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he was. That ever is no time at all.
By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.
He thought the summit could not be far. Perhaps tomorrow. Tomorrow came and went.
A rich southern wood that once held mayapple and pipsissewa.
Chimaphila umbellate (Umbellate Wintergreen, Pipsissewa, or Prince’s pine) is a small perennial flowering plant found in dry woodlands, or sandy soils. It is native through the cool temperate Northern Hemisphere.
A ridge overlooking the broad piedmont plain.
Piedmont, derived from “foot of the mount” in Latin languages, means a region of foothills of a mountain range. It appears in the proper name of several regions.
Festuca (fescue) is a genus of flowering plants belonging to the grass family, Poaceae.
A creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end.
The rank meconium.
noun – (medicine) – the dark green substance forming the first feces of a newborn infant.
The bullet travels faster than sound. It will be in your brain before you can hear it. To hear it you will need a frontal lobe and things with names like colliculus and temporal gyrus and you wont have them anymore.
noun – (anatomy) – a small protuberance, especially one of two pairs in the roof of the midbrain, involved respectively in vision and hearing.
The superior temporal gyrus is one of three (sometimes two) gyri in the temporal lobe of the human brain, situated somewhat above the external ear. It contains several important structures of the brain, including the primary auditory cortex and an important region for the processing of speech.
The footsteps in the leaves stopped. Then they moved on. They neither spoke nor called to each other, the more sinister for that.
He rose and walked out and cut a perimeter about their siwash camp.
noun – (derogatory) – an American Indian of the northern Pacific coast.
verb – (North American; informal) – camp without a tent.
 A good example of McCarthy’s style; where “was” and “were” are to be avoided like the plague:
He woke in the night with the cold and rose and broke up more wood for the fire. The shapes of the small treelimbs burning incandescent orange in the coals. He blew the flames to life and piled on the wood and sat with his legs crossed, leaning against the stone pier of the bridge. Heavy limestone blocked laid up without mortar. Overhead the ironwork brown with rust, the hammered rivets, the wooden sleepers and crossplanks.
(p.74 – 75)
Affectations like this are more distracting than clever. I’m opposed to any style that forces the average reader to struggle with basic comprehension. Challenging themes, plots, and ideas are always welcome. Avoiding punctuation and words of clarity are not.
They used to play quoits in the road with four big steel washers.
noun – a ring of iron, rope, or rubber thrown in a game to encircle or land as near as possible to an upright peg.
2. the flat covering stone of a dolmen.
The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.
The crude tattoos etched in some homebrewed woad faded in the beggared sunlight.
Isatis tinctoria – also called woad, is a flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae. Woad is also the name of a blue dye produced from the leaves of the plant.
A supplementary consort of catamites.
noun – (archaic) – a boy kept for homosexual practices.
The snow fell nor did it cease to fall.
I think McCarthy is saying that the snow fell and continued to fall but what a puzzling way to state that.
The snow stood in razor kerfs.
noun – 1. a slit made by cutting, especially with a saw.
2. the cut end of a felled tree.
A port cochere at the side.
A porte-cochere, coach gate or carriage porch is a porch- or portico-like structure at a main or secondary entrance to a building through which a horse and carriage (or motor vehicle) can pass in order for the occupants to alight under cover, protected from the weather.
The peeling paint hanging in long dry sleavings down the columns and from the buckled soffits.
noun – the underside of an architectural structure such as an arch, a balcony, or overhanging eaves.
Through the paint could be seen a pale palimpsest of advertisements.
(p.127 – 128)
(Also used in The Magus, note )
A manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused for another document.
The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth.
adjective – not having made a will before one dies.
noun – a person who has died without having made a will.
He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.
He’d been ready to die and now he wasnt going to and he had to think about that.
Warm at last.
Warm at last?
Where did you get that?
I don’t know.
There’s an echo of “free at last” in this, but I don’t know… maybe the man just finds it a peculiar thing for the boy to say.
I knew this was coming.
You knew it was coming?
Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.
Did you try to get ready for it?
No. What would you do?
Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave.
How would you know if you were the last man on earth?
Where men cant live gods fare no better.
They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans.
noun – any of several coded signs left along a road or on a non-Roma (Romani) house by one Rom to another.
A great bolus of serpents.
(also used in The Monkey’s Wedding, note )
noun – a small rounded mass of a substance, especially of chewed food at the moment of swallowing.
Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.
This stark sentiment is maintained by the man. But then, at the end, he tells his son:
You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.
…and I don’t buy the sudden swoop into optimism. It felt like McCarthy pulling back to give an out to the reader. I’ve come this far with him, I don’t need the message softened.
An isocline of death.
noun – a line on a diagram or map connecting points of equal gradient or inclination.
Pajaro de Esperanza. Tenerife.
Spanish: Bird of Hope.
Tenerife is the largest and most populated island of the seven Canary Islands. It is also the most populated island of Spain, with around 900,000 inhabitants.
The weak sea light fell through the clerestory portholes.
noun – the upper part of the nave, choir, and transepts of a large church, containing a series of windows. It is clear of the roofs of the aisles and admits light to the central part of the building.
2. a raised section of roof running down the center of a railroad car, with small windows or ventilators.
Stiff yellow breeches from the souwester gear.
A Sou’wester is a traditional form of collapsible oilskin rain hat that is longer in the back than the front to protect the neck. A possible theory for the derivation of the name is to do with the Sou’wester wind which is the prevailing wind in the seas around the U.K.
A wooden crate filled with excelsior.
Apart from meaning “superior quality”, in North America, excelsior can mean:
Softwood shavings used for packing fragile goods or stuffing furniture.
Hezzaninth [sic], London.
The man is looking at a sextant, “possibly a hundred years old” (p.227). Hezzanith appears to be part of the name (or a model) of sextant made by Heath & Co in London. I can’t find much information about it other than listings for antique ones.
A yellow plastic EPIRB.
Emergency position-indicating radiobeacon station.
They’d wrapped their feet in sailcloth and bound them in blue plastic pampooties out from a tarp.
Raw-hide shoes, which were formerly made and worn on the Aran Islands of County Galway, Ireland.
The salitter drying from the earth.
BarryWeber, another wordpress user, wrote a post about his search for the meaning and origin of this word. It’s an excellent read.
 I have no idea what McCarthy is trying to communicate with this:
At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe and lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.
The man is thinking of the futility of writing anything because this moment means no more than any other moment and death is coming for him? Is that it?
The pitted iron hardware deep lilac in color, smeltered in some bloomery in Cadiz or Bristol.
A bloomery is a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron from its oxides.
Cadiz is a city and port in southwestern Spain. It is the capital of the province of Cadiz, one of eight which make up the autonomous community of Andalusia.
Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.
adjective – (Northern English, dialect) – blackened or burnt.
 This says nothing. It does not touch me. But McCarthy is ratcheting up for the end; this is Important:
Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.
He expressed this better earlier in the book, by simply having the man observe the land around him. Soapboxing it is no good.
Tracks of unknown creatures in the mortified loess.
noun – (geology) – a loosely compacted yellowish-gray deposit of windblown sediment of which extensive deposits occur.
The bone stoven.
noun – (British, dialect) – stump.
I would love to read a version of The Road with emphasis on plot instead of style. My curiosity about the man, the boy, and the world they found themselves in was never satisfied. After the first 30 pages, you learn nothing more about them. But it’s not a terribly long read. McCarthy was very smart to not make this a 600-page monster.
My advice if you plan to read The Road: do it in as few sittings as possible. This is not a ten-minutes-before-bed or waiting-in-doctor’s-office kind of affair. Make a pot of coffee after dinner and get down to business. And, if you get about fifty pages in and it’s not doing anything for you, feel free to bail. It’s not going to change what it’s doing.
Next week, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying.