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Staring Down McCarthy's Barrel - A Review of The Road

This Article was Written by Matt Sutton (@mattrsutton) and first published for BRAG Online on 22.09.2023.

In pitching Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to most, especially in saying you enjoyed it, you might end up pegged as someone with a touch of masochism (and they may be right- I’m not here to judge you). We follow a man, name omitted, perhaps forgotten, and his son, simply the boy. They traverse a scorched American landscape, a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which friendly faces are few, and cannibalism is par for the course.

Many have made the mistake of undervaluing this novel on account of McCarthy’s prose. The man forgoes elegance here, even opting to neglect speech marks, his dialogue blending with the prose. His words are simple, matter-of-fact, and blunt, perfectly reflecting the brutal situation our characters traverse. Where another lauded novelist may cut your emotions to ribbons with sharp, elegant blade strokes, McCarthy opts for the hammer, bludgeoning you. It felt honest, as he broke my heart.

The plot is simple, to the point of having its existence questioned. Survival is the aim, as our father and son move south to escape the falling snows. They follow McCarthy’s road, almost always empty save for themselves. I did not count how many scenes we followed the father through one dilapidated home or another, scavenging for food, then preparing the paltry findings, but they were frequent. Nor did I count how often the boy fell into bouts of silence following some horrifying encounter, in which his father would hammer home the message. We are the good guys. You must speak to me. Okay? Okay.

We enjoy no roller coaster rides of plot on the road. Travel, survive. Travel, survive. Occasionally this pattern is interrupted by some horrifying discovery, reigniting the flame of desperation under the father’s backside.

All McCarthy gives us to hold onto is the boy, and the father’s palpable fear of dying. Of leaving his son to the monsters who also walk the road. His drive to survive, fuelled by pure emotion and humanity, is all we need. This story is painful, often agonising, pushing you to give the hell up. Never have I felt more miserable, than their discovery of a campfire, ‘a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit.’ Why am I reading this? This is horrible. I feel horrible. Sickened.

I think then of an early scene, as the boy is introduced to the wonders of a simple Coca Cola, found in the ash. And then, like the father, you have to see it through. The boy is counting on it. You have to see him to safety, if such a thing exists. It doesn’t, of course. But that thin thread of hope stays wrapped around your wrist, beginning to end. You are doomed, but he doesn’t have to be.

This is not a long book, physically, the deceptively beautiful Picador Collection version coming in at a little over 300 pages. But from cover to cover I felt as if I had aged years, beaten down by McCarthy’s hammer. It took me weeks to get through it, short bursts of misery on my lunch breaks, to avoid an overwhelming sense of depression at an eerily possible future.

Rarely has a novel had such emotional resonance to me, and to achieve it with such simple words and thin plot is a testament to the late, and surely great, Cormac McCarthy.

Carry the fire.

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