Cormac McCarthy has been writing novels since the 1960s. His first, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. That and almost all of his subsequent works have been bleak, set in harsh environments, tales of the darker aspects of humanity. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981, and in 1985 he published Blood Meridian, his most acclaimed novel (until now, you will please note). 1996 saw All The Pretty Horses, for which McCarthy won the National Book Award. In 2006, Blood Meridian was named to The New York Times Magazine’s list of the best novels of the past quarter-century. In 2006, plans were announced to adapt his book from 2005, No County For Old Men, for the screen. This, in turn, made McCarthy the Most Famous Writer in the World. Since he was now the MFWW, his 2006 book, The Road, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Plans for a film version were announced in 2007. In 2009, I read it.
Before we continue, please know that I fully admit to having read no other Cormac McCarthy books. What I speak of in the following is only in regard to The Road and the cult surrounding it and isn’t really intended to speak to McCarthy’s body of work largely. That said, if this is considered his masterpiece as some claim, I don’t want to read his lesser novels, that’s for damn sure. Which brings me to Point A, or Item 1. The Road is not a very good book. It’s an okay book. It’s a decent book. I’d even allow that it is a good book. It’s not “very good” tough, in the real sense of how those words work together, not in the popular non-committal sense where “not very good” doesn’t mean less than very good but better than good but instead just means bad. In any case, I certainly hope that The Road is not the pinnacle of the abilities of the MFWW. If it is, well, then to hell with it.
It’s hard to point to specific details of the novel that make it not “very good.” It would be one thing if the book was bad. Then I could just point out the things that are bad. But instead I am trying to identify the aspects of the novel that are of a particular degree of successfulness, which feels a lot like a nit-picky attempt to undercut his success and popularity simply out of spite. I read The Road in a matter of hours (five total, across two days, to be exact) and found it engaging and a fun read. So obviously, aspects of the book work well – it is good at something. But there are flaws, to be sure, which shouldn’t be ignored simply because we’re talking about the MFWW. Here’s one: the word “lave.” This is not a word used commonly in modern English. It’s a good word, though, and has a different feel to it than its synonyms. In context, it can identify an idea more specifically than any other word. It’s a rare word, and using it rarifies the scene it describes, makes it special, takes the reader’s attention. It’s also a word that no one uses anymore, which means if you repeat it several times in your book, we’ll notice, and it will not be special, and it will look like you’re just trying to impress us. We will know that you just learned the word and are showing off.
Another: the entirety of the dialogue in The Road is terse, short, grim and hard. The sort of talking people would do after the world has ended. “What are we going to do Papa? – Let’s go. – Can we go back to the fire? – No. Come on. We probably don’t have much time. – I’m really hungry. – I know.” The whole book is like that, even the dialogue between father and son, whose lives are dedicated to the other’s survival. The whole book, that is, except one part – a flashback no less – in which the unnamed main character is speaking to his deceased-in-real-time wife. The equally unnamed woman is preparing for her suicide. “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot. – Death is not a lover. – Oh yes he is. – Please dont so this. – I’m sorry. – I cant do it alone. – Then dont. I cant help you. They say women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves. But I dont dream at all.” And so on. Listen. Here’s the thing. When people are contemplating suicide and are openly discussing it with a spouse while their child sleeps in the next room, especially after civilization has crumbled and the highways are swarming with gangs of raping cannibals, they’re not going to start talking in esoteric metaphors about death being a lover and postulating on gender-tendencies in dreams. People don’t talk like that in normal circumstances, never mind at the End of Days. Unless the apocalypse is a bad play (which wouldn’t surprise me and would be a pretty good joke on us all).
One more: This is barely a novel. Novels have thoughts, emotions, contemplations, character development. This book has only plot. Therefore, it is a screenplay.
You get the point. Do these things make The Road bad? No. But they make it not a masterpiece. Admittedly, Entertainment Weekly was the publication that called it a masterpiece, but Newsweek said it was the “logical culmination of everything [McCarthy] has written,” which is just about saying as much, and even the back of the book says it’s destined to become one. I’ve spoken to others who have read more McCarthy than I have, and they are baffled too, citing other earlier works as superior novels, which leaves me wondering just why this book is held in such high regard. The problem is, I think, that I have been looking at The Road as a single entity. Having read no previous books by the author, I am free of the weight of his history. Everyone else is reading The Road in the context of Cormac McCarthy’s ascension to the Most Famous Writer in the World.
Point 2, or Item B: People are in love with the idea of Cormac McCarthy. First things first, The Road is his most recent publication, released only just before his coronation as the MFWW (the actual event of which was the announcement of an adaptation of No County by hip young Hollywooders, the Coen Brothers). The Road is the most immediately-at-hand and the only novel that reviewers could gush over without losing readership. No one wants to read reviews of his books from the 70s and 80s, but they’ll read about his only novel of the 2000s to date. Book reviewers are as quick to bandwagon as everybody else, so when the opportunity arose to review the MFWW, well, you get the Chicago Tribune crediting the book with “announcing the triumph of language over nothingness.”
The Road, unfortunately, just isn’t that special. It’s not the first post-apocalyptic tale of survival ever written. Shit. It’s not even the first such tale in which the father dies and the son survives because of his generosity and love. It’s not the first book written in the style in which it’s written either. For starters, McCarthy had written nine books prior, and then before that there was Ernest Hemingway. Neither is McCarthy that special as an author. His much-lauded style is not new (see above), though it is well done, and I don’t put much stock in attempts to be “new” in that particular sense. But, his cutesy post-modern tricks with punctuation are just that, cutesy post-modern tricks. Let’s all stop mistaking a lack of apostrophes in contractions for “eloquently sere” writing, or some other such nonsense apologism, especially when the author is being so obvious in his tricksiness as to skip the apostrophes in “dont” and “cant” but leave them in for “I’m” and “let’s.” (Also, please note, the Newark Star-Ledger called McCarthy’s vocabulary “massive, Biblical” which leads me to assume the didn’t even read the fucking book.)
What McCarthy is is a reclusive writer. He doesn’t give interviews often, he lives humbly, he doesn’t drink or carouse, and he prefers the company of scientists to other writers. And if we know one thing, it’s that the press loves a reclusive artist. We (the social “we”) love them. In some strange, kind of parasitic way, we are drawn towards the secretive loner who produces artistic works more so than the gregarious, friendly, humble man from down-the-way who does so. We love alcoholics, depressives, adulterers and recluses. We imagine that if they’re weird, they must be artistic masters, much to the detriment of regular folks who are better. There is a lot of research on the topic, on the Genius-and-Madness theme, much of it illustrating that it’s hooey, so I won’t go into it here, but it’s a large part of why there’s a cult of personality about Cormac McCarthy. He’s strange, so he must be good. (Actually, the few who have interviewed him have all said he’s friendly and chatty, just a little private, so make your own conclusions about just how strange he is and who is propagating the myth and why.)
There’s another piece to this puzzle. One last thing to bring it all home. That’s Number C: Cormac McCarthy writes pulp. He writes Westerns which, not so long ago, were the purview of ten-cent paperbacks for boys available on a spinning rack at Walgreens. Now I like Westerns, but much like I don’t think Sergio Leone’s films are of the same type as Ingmar Bergman’s, I don’t think that Cormac McCarthy is writing the great novels of our time. His books are entertaining like movies and easy to read like magazines but, since he’s weird, since he behaves like we think an outlaw author should, and because he’s writing post-modern interpretations of the genre with post-modern stylings and conceits, he is elevated to something above pulp. The reception of The Road by the critical press speaks more to the faults and failures of that sphere, to its cult of personality and obsequiousness to its own trends, than it does to the exceptionalism of the novel which, like I said, is decent. Just not Very Good.
I’ll leave with a question: If Dan Brown wrote The DaVinci Code without any quotation marks, would he be called a “gutsy, powerful storyteller?”
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Pub: 2006 by Vintage International
Page Count: 287
Page Count it would have been if it wasn’t in double-spaced 14-point fount: approximately 155.
Out of context quote: “In an upper window of the house he could see a man drawing a bow on them and pushed the boy’s head down and tried to cover him with his body. He heard a dull thwang of the bowstring and felt a sharp hot pain in his legs. Oh you bastard, he said. You bastard!”
Hearing what you want to hear: Because his vision of the future in The Road is environmentally devastated, McCarthy was called one the “50 people who could save the planet” by George Monbiot, a British environmental activist. No where in the book does McCarthy give any indication as to what caused the devastation.