Friday, March 6, 2009

"The Road" Review

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2007. Oprah book club selection. Garbage.

A couple disclaimers. I have a feeling this review will garner the same type of response I used to get when I reviewed Green when a new Magic set came out. Some people will get pissed at me for expressing an opinion. Don’t. It’s just my opinion. Relax. I’m going to insult the book, not you.
The other disclaimer is, I am going to tell you major portions of the book and even talk about the ending. If you want to believe the hype and read this book, don’t read this. Or go read the book (takes about 3 hours) and come back.

That said –

It is set in a post apocalyptic Earth. Either the effects of a nuclear war or a meteor hitting the Earth because everything is covered in ash and dust. So, it’s either a nuclear winter or simulates one. The planet hasn’t seen the sun in years. All the animals have been killed. Crops do not grow. The only thing to eat is canned goods, or other people. Most of the Earth’s population is gone. Everyone is starving because all the canned goods are gone, or died in the apocalypse. Everything has been used up including almost all fuel, batteries, and ammunition. This is the story of a man and his young son trying to make their way south to escape another very cold winter.

First, the dialog –

I’m scared.
I know.
I’m really scared.
It will be okay.

This exact scene with that dialogue is repeated possibly fifty times in the book. Incredibly repetitive. Incredibly annoying.

It doesn’t take a masterpiece to weave a good story that sucks you in and never breaks the suspension of disbelief. Yet in this masterpiece, I was constantly being pulled out of the story by elements that I just couldn’t believe.

Humanity is on its last legs. There are so few canned goods left that everyone is thin and starving, and by everyone, I mean if you travel ten miles a day, you’ll see a person about once every three days. One day the father discovers a home-made bomb shelter. Inside is water, food, fuel, whisky, beds, a heater, a gas stove, etc. The amount might be able to last them months or even years. They stay for a few days, and then load up their shopping cart and continue their journey. The father tells the son it’s too dangerous to stay. They’ll be found.

Whoa, wait! What? Wait a week another dozen people looking to eat you will be dead. Wait a month you might be the last people alive. How is it safer to be pushing a shopping cart through ten miles of terrain a day? When that terrain has bands of cannibals. And most of the time you’re on a road. And about that shopping cart. They push it through fields and snow. Clearly the author has never tried to push a shopping cart along anything other than a flat man made surface.

They almost get caught by a roving band of men. Maybe five guys. They are hiding in a ditch and one of the men leaves his party to take a leak in the ditch. He grabs for the son and the father shoots him with one of his three remaining bullets. Wait, the men are right over there and you got away? With a kid who can’t be older than eight in the story? You got away from four grown men looking to eat you with a five second head start?

There is no characterization other than this is a boy and a father in a harsh world. You don’t get any glimpse into their personality past “I’m a father and I love my son.” “I’m a son who is scared and I love my father and hate the horrible world we live in.”

They travel the road. They are tired. They run out of food. They almost starve to death. They find a huge cache of food. They travel the road. They are tired. They run out of food.
Repeat until the end.

The book is an easy read. Not much happens but you keep thinking they might get caught. Or what will happen if the son dies? What happens if the father dies? Maybe the sun will come out. Maybe they’ll find a commune full of good people who have found a way to make crops grow or have some animals somehow. I kept reading because I kept waiting for something else to happen. Nothing does until the end. The father dies.

Another man shows up that day and offers to bring the boy to a safe place where there are other good people. We never get to see where or how many people or how they are surviving. That’s the end. Very unfulfilling.

One of the reviews I liked on that extrapolates on what I've already said.

"Synopsis: A man and a boy push a shopping cart with a bad wheel down a road. The road is covered with ashes, though there is no explanation as to the origin of the ashes. It rains. The man coughs. The little boy whines. They have bad shoes. After a couple pages, the man and boy push the same shopping cart with the same bad wheel down the same road. They're hungry. It rains some more. The think they see someone else on the road. They see a house. They build a fire in a ditch. They wrap their feet in cloth. They pass through a town. There are lots of ashes.

After a couple pages the man and boy have trouble pushing the shopping cart with the bad wheel down the road. It's cold and wet. They avoid someone. They wrap their feet in coats. They see a house and find something disgusting to eat. It snows. There are ashes everywhere. A ragtag army comes up behind the man and the boy pushing the shopping cart with the bad wheel down the road. They get off the road. They kill a man. They run away.

The man thinks he knows where they are on the map. They wrap their feet in a plastic tarp. They return for the shopping cart with the bad wheel and push it down the road in the rain. Not so many ashes, but they will be back. They build a fire in the woods. They build a fire in a fireplace in an empty house. The man tries to fix the wheel on the shopping cart so he and the boy can push it down the road more easily. It works better for a couple pages. They build a fire under a bridge. The man isn't sure where they are on the map.

They are hungry but refuse to kill and eat anyone, though that's what everyone else seems to be doing. The rain and ashes are back. The man finds a trove that would last months, maybe years. They don't have to build a fire because they have a stove. The man has no idea where they are on the map. The little boy fails to close the gas valve properly. They don't build a fire beside the road. They load their shopping cart with the wheel that's gone bad again and leave everything behind them that they can't carry and push the shopping cart down the road.

They have bathed. They have new shoes. It's raining. They are ash deep in the remains of a fire. The wheel gets worse as the man and boy push the shopping cart down the road. The man coughs. They build a fire in the road. The man knows where they are on the map. They avoid some people they see. They avoid some people who aren't there. The boy whines. They meet and feed someone on the road who says his name's not Ely. They continue down the road. They go through some towns. They see some houses. They push the shopping cart. They get a wheelbarrow. It rains. The earth quakes. Lightning flashes.

They build a fire under a bridge again. The ashes make things tougher. Did I mention their shoes? Their shoes are worn out by the ashes and the rain and the snow and pushing the shopping cart down the road. They wrap their feet in layer upon layer of whatever the author can think of. The man isn't sure where they are on the map. The shopping cart has a bad wheel. They reach the ocean. The man ransacks a beached sailing ship. He coughs. The boy loses their pistol. They find the pistol. It's dark. It rains.

The ocean isn't blue. There are ashes as far as the eye can see. Someone tries to rob them. The man forces the robber to strip naked and they leave him. The boy whines. They return to succor the naked thief. He's not there. The boy whines again.

The man coughs and dies. Another man shows up. The boy goes with the other man.

Now you don't have to suffer through 241 pages of rain, ashes and pushing a shopping cart with a bad wheel down some stupid road. You're welcome. -----

What I thought: Gryke. Discalced. Mastic. Meconium. Rachitic. Siwash. Parsible. Woad. Kerf. Chary. Firedrake. Palimpsest. Middens. Pampooties. Salitter. Dolmen stones. Crozzled.

I read a fair amount. I have pretty good reading, writing and speaking vocabularies. The above words are in The Road. Two of them I could not find even in the OED. The ones I could look up mostly had mundane meanings. I like books that stretch my vocabulary, but not books that stretch my vocabulary to no end.

Why is "chary" better than "wary," which is what chary means. Why is "gryke" better than its preferred spelling grike and why return to the 18th century to tell me there was a crevasse in the limestone cliff. I don't find stumbling over unnecessary, obscure words conducive to my reading pleasure, nor am I impressed by big words.

I understand that The Road has been favorably compared to Stephen King's "The Stand." "The Stand," in one of its editions, is more than 1300 pages long. It's a brilliant book. "The Road" couldn't hold "The Stand's" jock. That being said, "The Stand" is not the best end-of-the-world book. King got his idea from George Stewart's masterpiece, "Earth Abides." "Earth Abides" is the quintessential end-of-the-world book. It reflects reality. It is a great story, It invites the reader to think. In its most recent edition it is 368 pages. If you are looking for the best in post apocalyptic literature, no one will ever be able to top "Earth Abides!" (This message brought to you by Post, the official Cereal of the Apocalypse!)

If you are looking for a book with little punctuation, no attributions, no chapters, etc. stick with "The Road" If you want to read a real book, read just about anything else. Maybe if enough people buy "The Road," McCarthy can buy a typewriter that has a working comma key, apostrophe key, quotation marks, etc. That's not enough of an incentive for you to spend any amount of money on this book. I am ashamed to have to tell my wife I paid money for it.

This is worse than a bad book. There was one noteworthy moment in "The Road. On page 145 an old man notes, "Where man can't live, gods fare no better." You just dodged another bullet. I told you the story above. You know the one vaguely insightful line. Don't send me any money, but next time you're in a book store and you see someone considering this book, warn them. That will be thanks enough.


  1. I read it when it first came out a couple years ago, and although it was no masterpiece, I wouldn't say it was garbage. It was kind of forgettable. And that didn't stop old Cormac from selling the screen rights for millions and them turning it into a major motion picture starring Viggo Mortenson. And I do remember one section of the book that I did find pretty good or possibly creepy - when they get into that house with the cannibals food. Again, been a long time since I read it, but it evoked some gruesome mental imagery for me. Think X-Files episode with the mutant inbred family that keeps their mom strapped to a wheeled cart under the upstairs bed. Thanks for the book referral, going to pick that one up from Amazon! Love me a good end of the world story.

  2. I thought the book was decent up until the ending, which seemed like the biggest cop-out possible.

  3. I don't know, how else are you going to end something like that? Happy shiny ending where they find utopia? Find a military base that still is under govt control? I don't think so.

  4. I can't say how much I disagree with your evalution of The Road. To me it's one of the best reads I've had in the last two or three years (and I read A LOT!).

    You use a lot of space ridiculing McCarthy and his writing style. When you compare it to others, it seems like you don't appreciate the need for McCarthy to impress upon the reader how different the world in his universe is from the one we know. Your suggestions would work in our world, but not in a post-apocalyptic one such as he is describing.

    To me it is a matter of course that the dialogue has to be this way. To me the dialogue and the building of suspense is brilliant. His portrayal of the world feels intensely real to me, like I can visualize a world gone wrong.

    Another thing is that you make a lot of presumtions about the action. You interpret a lot, without your interpretations necessarily being correct, like when you state that the father and son may be alone in the world if they wait around. They are looking for other people! They are hoping to get to a community of comparably normal people. Also I think the author has thought long, hard and well about pushing a shopping cart along. The way I read the book, I get a good idea of just how much hard work it really is. Did you skim much of the book?

    All in all I think your advice is a terrible one. Normally I like your writing A LOT, but in this case I think you are WRONG to advice people in the way you are doing. You of course have the right to your opinion, and I won't take that away from you, but I must tell people that what you say about The Road is contrary to the opinion of MANY other readers of the book.

    Sorry if I come across as harsh in my comment, but this time I think you deserve it...

  5. Haha!

    What a scathing review of The Road. Your review was an entertaining read kind of the same way that Yahtzee slams video games. While we disagree on the quality of this book, I appreciate you taking the time to read it and give a fair and scathing critique.

    As Chris said, it evoked some seriously f'd up mental imagery for me and made me ponder why they left that awesome cache in the first place. Why keep going when they were living in fat city? Long story short, dad was dying and needed to get something done before he could go.

    So I guess the ball's in my court now. Got to go check out Earth Abides from the library.



  6. Thanks for the comments guys.

    I know some people are passionate about this book so I won't be doing much debating. Maybe a little.

    The evidence to me suggested that there were very few people left, and every person they saw was starving to death. With no more food on the planet, I don't think people will be lasting much longer unless they find a huge cache of food.

    McCarthy's writing style could be construed to say the world is bleak and empty and so is this book's punctuation. Except he did the same thing in his other books, which were not about a bleak and desolate world.

    Which doesn't really bother me. I never mentioned it, I only quoted a guy on Amazon because I thought his review was funny.

    As I said, I found it an easy read. I kept turning pages and it only took me about three hours to read it.

    I don't know how I would of ended it, but that's not my job. It's the author's job to end it in a satisfying way. Pretty much any ending he could have come up with would have been better than the one he went with.

    To me, there's just too many logic fallacies. Like, the man says they can't survive another winter where they are so they're heading south. Why is it fall when they start to walk then? Wouldn't it have made more sense to start in the Spring?

    Anyway, thanks for all the comments, especially the ones who don't get upset with me for speaking an opinion they disagree with. (I'm looking at you Joe.)

  7. You're lingering on the cache. The entire reason they're taking this trip is because the father knows he's dying and has to find someone else to take over or to get his son to some form of society. What good is having this cache when he's dead and it's his son alone?

    They left in the fall because they wanted to avoid the winter. They're not going to go "Boy living sure is hard and we don't have much, hey let's stay up here for another northern winter and in the spring we'll leave. It'll be so much better than leaving".

  8. That book was in desperate need of some Zombies. Zombies would have saved it.

  9. That book + Zombies = World War Z. Go read that one next.

  10. I agree, World War Z is easily in my top 10.