Tuesday, 19 February 2008
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (My Hero)
I don't normally do book reviews , as there are loads of others on Blogsville, in my opinion, who do it so much better than i ever could; however, i am willing to make an exception for this one book.
This book left me completely wrung out emotionally. I read the last 10 pages on the train on the way to meet up with a friend on Saturday, and as my eyes kept tearing up, i had to constantly battle not to let the tears spill down my cheeks; although after a while, i was beyond caring. Such is the power of this book. It's totally amazing!
Until a couple of months ago, i'd never even heard of Cormac McCarthy. Now he is my ultimate literary hero and i am going to read every book he has ever written!
I saw an interview he did with Oprah a while ago and i remember him striking me as someone completely comfortable in their own selves and comfortable with who they are. Not at all caught up in the hype that accompanies being featured in Oprah's Book Club. In fact, he actually said he didn't care that millions of people now read his books. He only hoped that people who would appreciate his writing read his books, the numbers being completely inconsequential. Never mind that i had no clue who he was or even that he'd won the 2007 Pullitzer prize for his latest novel, The Road, i was completely transfixed by his intellect and his ideas and wasn't surprised to subsequently find out he is an academic and a scientist, no less.
Right from the opening pages, i was hooked! Hooked, and also filled with a feeling of dread. I'm not exagerating when i say i wore a permanent wince throughout my reading of The Road. Incidentally, No Country for Old Men, the Oscar nominated movie is based on one of McCarthy's books, and my reaction throughout the film was the same.
The story chronicles the journey of a father and son to the coast, following a natural disaster, or even perhaps a nuclear holocaust. We are not told what has happened, however, it is clear that the world as we know it, has come to an end. The landscape is completely burnt out, the air is filled with ash, vegetation and animals are all dead and the few human beings that remain are divided into two distinct camps - the good guys and the bad guys. The ones who eat other human beings and the ones who don't.
The father and son do what they can to survive. All they have is each other. Their story is so beautifully imagined, and beautifully told. In fact, it's hard to come across a single review of the book which does not use the word 'beautiful'. But in contrast to the beauty of the often heart-wrenching relationship between the boy and his papa as they spur each other on to continue against all odds and to hold on to their humanity even as all those around them lose theirs, there is a palpable sense of dread and terror, as they live in constant fear of the 'road agents' who capture survivors enslave them and keep them for food.
The man is ill and constantly coughs up blood, but even in the face of near starvation, freezing temperatures, death and despair, he carries on for the sake of his son. They often go days on end without food or even the hope of it, but they carry on. The man has a pistol with two solitary bullets in it. We are told that his wife committed suicide at some stage, entrusting the boy to his father, knowing that he would continue on, if only for the boy's sake. The man has taught his son how to position the gun in his mouth and fire in the event of anything happening to him.
Cormac McCarthy is 73 years old, and became a father late in life i.e. in his 60s. The book is dedicated to his son, and he admits that it probably would not have been written at all if he did not have his son. He tells of how he was in a hotel room in El Paso, late one night, his son asleep. He looked out of the window down on the town below him and at the hills in the distance and imagined what that town would look like in the face of devastation. That was where the seed for the book was planted, although the story wasn't completed till 4 years later. He said when he writes it's like taking dictation. As if the story has already been written in his subconscious and when he sits at his Olivetti typewriter, he is simply writing down what he's being told. The book was completed in a few weeks. Amazing!
In the interview, McCarthy also tells of how his primary objective in life was always to never have to work. As a result, he went through lots of hardship, three marriages and unimaginable lack. However, he says no matter how hard things were, something always turned up in the nick of time e.g a cheque for $20,000 for a fellowship, a sample size tube of toothpaste in the mail box, just when he had run out etc. This theme is echoed throughout The Road. Just when your heart is breaking for the wretched pair, they would stumble across a cache of food and supplies, retrieve their stolen possessions from a thief who is really just another man trying his best to survive.
Some say the boy is a figment of the man's imagination. Something he makes up to give him a reason to keep on going. Others say the boy is a type of Messiah, 'carrying the fire' that is going to save the rest of the world. Me, i leave the analysis to more seasoned book reviewers. As i mentioned earlier, the ending of the book is heart-breaking. Literally. The whole book just blew me away, and it's a testament to author that he is able to endue such a simple story with so much poignancy. Without giving too much away, I love this book. I gave my copy to my friend to read, but later found myself regretting it because i wanted to read it all over again.
If you only read one book this year, let it be The Road.
Oprah's interview with Cormac McCarthy