I first heard of Cormac McCarthy via the film version of one of his books, All the Pretty Horses. A western, starring Matt Damon, it was tight, nicely acted, but it stood out with particularly good dialogue. I reckon I must’ve known the name McCarthy because, when I discovered that it was his book I felt I knew him already. I realise now that that’s because he’s arguably the greatest living novelist in the world.
His western novels, some in the Old West and some, such as No Country for Old Men, set right now, are stark and very very tight. He writes almost as if he’s fasting. He puts the words down that make the point, and doesn’t waste one more. The effect is to feel like you’re reading poetry, it hits you so hard and effectively, in the way distinct poems do. But that is where the comparison ends. I don’t believe Cormac McCarthy has written a line of symbolic text in his life.
The Road is probably his masterpiece. It’s a harsh thing to say about a guy who’s still alive and still writing, but, I think he knows it. Not many great artists know of their greatness in their own lifetimes, so I suppose he’s lucky really.
The story is of a father and son, walking to Mexico, to find warmth and water in a post-nuclear America. The sun, lost behind the clouds, is almost forgotten and the only light is that which the man has for his son. As they sleep in blackened and destroyed forests, wake in greyness and walk onwards, they are pursued by hunger, hopelessness and even cannibals. This is not a book about redemption.
I have only read this book once. I don’t believe I will ever read it again. This is simply because it is far, far to affecting, and I don’t know if I could do it again. I openly wept time and again and often had to stop and just stare at the wall for a while. What McCarthy has done is produce the most devastatingly sad book without writing a miserable sentence or paragraph in the whole thing. It is a diatribe against humanity, and a celebration of its greatest achievement at the same time.
The father’s absolute devotion to his son, the reciprocated adoration of the boy and the inevitable loss of any future is so strong, and so well managed. I cannot concieve of how someone decides one day they are going to write something like this, and then just do it. It’s phenomenal.
Maybe you’ve seen the film. I haven’t steeled myself to yet. If you read the book, it’ll take about 24hours. You won’t be able to stop turning the pages until you literally fall asleep or can’t bear it anymore.
Simply one of the best books of the last 30 or 40 years.