From my review in a newspaper you probably don’t know (The Grand Rapids Press), to my myspace blog, for months I’ve been blathering on about how much I like Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. Now, the news that the book has become Oprah’s next pick. AND he’s going to do her show! Are we living in truly apocalyptic times, or what?
This is why I think THE ROAD is a terrific book: If you’ve read McCarthy’s earlier work, you’ve seen how he has developed as a writer over the past twenty-five or so years. From SUTTREE and THE ORCHARD KEEPER, to BLOOD MERIDIAN, to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (a pleasingly accessible crime novel), (I’ll mention The Border Trilogy as quality work, but it’s not to my taste.), the man just keeps getting better—and he was certainly no slouch to begin with. He has given every appearance of being a borderline nihilist in the deepest, most disturbing sense. Then, every so often, he pops up with some strange, hopeful image, like a group of cattle drivers leaving dried beans for the pathetic young protagonist of BLOOD MERIDIAN while he is sleeping, or a failed sheriff living happily ever-after (sort of).
But in THE ROAD, his bleakest landscape yet, he gives it all over to hope. My pet theory is that THE ROAD is the legacy he is leaving for his very young son (who is not even ten, I think). It’s an astonishing transformation for an older writer to make. Maybe it’s just that fabled drop in testosterone at work—but I don’t think so.
Pinckney Benedict, my husband, is a far better educated writer and critic than I. He’s not so enamored of THE ROAD. He’s a huge McCarthy fan, and the one who first introduced me to McCarthy. His argument is that McCarthy has merely fallen into step on the well-trodden road of post-apocalyptic fiction; one cut by Richard Matheson (I AM LEGEND), Stephen King (THE STAND), Max Brooks (WORLD WAR Z), et al. In fact, I have to agree that McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic US is not all that original, and others have done it with more imagination.
But was imagination the point? He has given us—in almost every single book—a vision of ourselves that demonstrates that we hold the apocalypse inside of us. Human beings that are capable of trimming a tree with dead babies most certainly hold the seeds of their own destruction within themselves. So, THE ROAD is not the apotheosis of post-apocalyptic books.
It is, however, a great book. Period. And this is why I’m glad Oprah chose it. Here is a man who is the master of his craft. He’s gone from writing books that few folks will take on (too bad for them) because of their density and violence, to writing books that, if given a chance, will have broad appeal. For many academics, this is not usually such a great thing, because they seem to revel in the obscure and opaque (I know these people, and they’re pathetic and a pain in the butt.). But, strangely, the intelligentsia has embraced THE ROAD—because they believe it to be a brilliant apocalyptic vision. They just don’t know that it’s been done before. I think it’s a great book because it has short, sharp, declarative sentences of stark beauty. It is a book about deep loss, and deeper love. I think it’s a great book written at the height of a man’s powers—a man who showed discretion in writing it, not overwriting it.
I wonder what his son will make of it.