The Road Less Traveled

The only cover that makes sense.

I’ve been getting burned by books lately. Most of what I have been reading has been disappointing, and I am extremely particular. However, I strongly believe that great fiction can come from any place: a movie, video game, comic book or novel. So when I am at my Barnes & Nobles checkout counter, I might have a children’s classic in my hands, like A Wrinkle in Time, or pop culture fare like The Maze Runneror a Pulitzer Prize winner. Now to be fair, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is my first time reviewing a Pulitzer Prize winner, so maybe I was expecting too much. The very best books change your life, or at least, show you the world in a brand new light. These are my four star reviews. But McCarthy’s book left me empty and unsatisfied. Perhaps, for a less jaded reader, it would have had a greater impact. Still, The Road is the greatest book to ever disappoint me, and with all the gushing praise from critics, I am tempted to bump it up a star. But if I am to be honest with myself, and judge it strictly by how it affected me, I find it falling short of true greatness. Like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, The Road is best served without praise; it is a beautiful, heart wrenching story, but like its two protagonists, has very little to say, or, if some deeper meaning eludes me, I didn’t care enough to look for it. I did, in fact, search other reviews, something I’ve never done, to see if I’d missed something. But the critics had little to offer by way of interpretation, so I am left with my own.

Starting into The Road, you’ll be struck by McCarthy’s irreverent style. It has been argued in many a fiction guidebook that excessive style is to be avoided or “invisible” lest it distract from the story. But I’ve never agreed and never will. If used purposefully and with tact, style can greatly enhance any novel. It’s only when writers try their hand at poetry or philosophy without knowing what they’re doing, that these techniques get a bad rap, at which point editors throw the baby out with the bathwater. This explains the glut of matter-of-fact writing so commonly found on today’s bookstore shelves. I blame the publishing industry for the dumbing down of literature. Thankfully, McCarthy has earned enough clout to do whatever he damn pleases, and it’s his style that makes The Road brilliant and beautiful, not merely what he says but how he says it. 

There are no quotation marks anywhere in the book, even when characters are speaking, which can be confusing. He also abstains from apostrophes, except for certain words, like its and it’s. There is also a staggering number of fragments, which, while fairly common in some novels, is used here to such excess that it feels jarring. Other departures from the norm include no chapters, and the only main characters not having names, a father and his son, referred to as “the man” and “the boy.” McCarthy’s prose is bone dry and, at times, minimalist. If “the man” is preparing a meal, you’ll get to read all about finding a can, opening the can, finding brushwood for the fire, lighting a match to start the fire, and finally cooking the can. And he doesn’t do this just once. Arrangements for sleeping and eating and sleeping again are described in meticulous detail again and again. There is also frequent walking, while pushing a grocery cart, and repeated descriptions of dead trees, dead plants, and a ghostly sun. But every now and then, in the midst of all this dry repetition, some poetry breaks loose, often mid-sentence, which catches you off guard. In fact, McCarthy proves himself a master of the written word, dropping the most beautiful, gut wrenching lines, which would not look out of place in an 18th century Romantic manuscript:

Out on the roads the pilgrim’s sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

—p. 181


If this review seems overly focused on style, it’s because there isn’t much story to speak of. Eighty percent of it is walking and looking for food, finding food and eating it, building a fire and sleeping and shivering in the cold in pitch-black night. Often, there is freezing rain, and without shelter the father and son continually risk death. At other times, there is snow, all the color of ash (or maybe it is ash). 

If you haven’t already guessed, The Road is an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world tale, its setting so bleak and so without hope it makes The Walking Dead look like My Little Pony. While there is little by way of exposition, to explain what has happened, you can tell by the absence of any life (no birds or fish or even insects) that this is a nuclear winter, the result of some nuclear holocaust, or meteor impact like the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs. The survivors are too few to call this a dystopia, as the man and the boy remark, you really could not know whether you were the last human alive. Groceries and farms have already been looted, so finding hidden caches of food is the only means of survival, but the protagonists can never linger long, for starvation has driven the last of the human race to murder and cannibalism. Suicide hangs over everything, as both a danger and salvation, and often seems the best and only option. 

This is where McCarthy’s style proves its worth, since, in a world without people, names become redundant. When the passage of time is agonizing, and the world is without destinations, chapters are counter productive. When life is nothing more than the struggle to keep living, everyday minutia is all there is, and the way in which the story is told becomes every bit as important as what is being told.      

The risk of telling such a tale is losing the reader to despair and indifference, and more than once I had to ask myself, “what am I getting out of this?” and “is it worth taking this journey?” But what keeps the reader going, and what kept me going, isn’t hope (there isn’t any) but the love that exists between father and son, without which neither could survive. What’s most remarkable about this novel, the darkest, bleakest story ever put to paper, is that it’s really all about love, and altruism, and the value of human relationships. Take away the sun and plants and animals and all the comforts of civilization, and what remains are the people in our lives, without which starvation, and death, is preferable.

Despite my disappointment, I find Cormac McCarthy to be a brilliant writer, who did exactly what he set out to do. The story is bleak and repetitive and uneventful, even boring at times, but that is the nature of the story he is telling. It is devoid of meaning or inspiration, perhaps because, with the death of the world, those things die too, but neither is it cynical. When everything burns out, the last remaining thing, the thing we cling to, is what matters most. Love.


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