The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Yesterday, I completed my world-wind reading of The Road. A book group that I recently joined was set to discuss the book, unfortunately, the tax man interfered and we did not meet. Still, I need to discuss this book. Please forgive, I’ve not written a book report in years.

McCarthy’s story tells of the journey of a father and son, a young boy of unknown age, in a several years post-apocalypse America. A world consumed by cold and dark images with colors mostly limited to shades of gray. Color is added only with literal fire and the fire the pair carry with them: the figurative fire of faith. Other instances of color: red of an aged Coca-cola can, yellow toy truck, butane fire of orange and blue.

The grammar and structure bother me, terribly. The narrative lacks quotation marks and apostrophes, but only in some contractions, not all. The author included no chapter headings. I suppose that I understand that the pair journey to places unknown looking for people (the good guys) unknown and without a specific location or plan. The journey is of necessity bare bones, unadorned by excess. These explain and justify the grammatical and structural omissions.

The book’s narrative is written primarily from the third person omniscient voice. There is one paragraph on page 87 written in first person for the father. Is this one paragraph for the reader to understand that the boy is also the omniscient voice? Or is there some other purpose? I implore someone to explain this.

Aside from the above, the book is well written. Some images disturb and frighten, but it is post-apocalyptic. I was drawn into the story in spite of aesthetic concerns.



Filed under Cormac McCarthy, Fiction, Literature

7 responses to “The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. stephenpeterson

    Reading the book really was a journey of its own wasn’t it? I sometimes wish I was endowed with the sort of confidence and cache that would allow an author to discard grammatical conventions. Here’s a link to my review of the book. I hadn’t picked up on the color theme, but had noted that one first person paragraph. The paragraph is obviously important, but it’s significance escapes me. It was jarring in the midst of the otherwise sterile narrative.

  2. salmonandgrits

    A friend emailed me this:

    To pick one small topic, I think the physical structure of the book (lack of punctuation, inconsistency of punctuation, fragments, all those things we’re taught in composition NOT to do because they interfere with accurate interpretation of intent) is very, very deliberate–even to the point of putting in some apostrophes and leaving some out. These two are living in a world in which nothing is consistent, nothing can be relied upon, everything is disjointed. The two main characters are struggling to find enough food and water simply to keep their bodies alive, so thoughts would necessarily be shorthanded if they existed at all. The prose also communicates that sense of unease and desperation to ANY reader–whether that reader actually consciously grasps all the ticky grammar/compostion rules or not. The style is disturbing, unsettling, unreliable, slippery–but at the same time, did you realize how quickly you were reading the book?&nb sp; I’ve read reviews or responses from people who read the book in one evening; I did it in one plus another hour or 2 the next day. Despite the unconventionality of McCarthy’s usage, he whips the reader along, and I can’t help admiring the skill it took to construct such breathless, painful speed of consumption of a book that really should have slowed the reader down. I do admit that when I first started reading, I had to take a deep breath and focus in so that I could grasp what he was saying because I so believe in good usage and construction–but I really do see what he did as part of what he was trying to create: it’s all of a piece, and if it were cleanly written, it wouldn’t have the effect it ultimately does.

  3. I’m a part of an online book discussion group, and we’re discussing this book today:

  4. tim

    Thank you for asking the question re: page 87! I have been trying to figure this one out myself. The way I read it after getting to the end was that this wasn’t the boy or the man, but the tracker at the end of the book who adopts the boy. The reason for me thinking this way was (and I’m sorry not to have the passage in front of me while I’m paraphrasing) that the the first person speaks of the boy and the dog in reverse order (from what was presented previously in the book). The boy is fixated on the other child he sees in the street and only asks about the dog in passing as they leave. In that passage, the voice says that the boy doesn’t remember the child, but mentions the dog regularly.
    My thought was that this passage marks the point where the man and the boy begin to be followed from a distance by the tracker and his family. Would love to hear another opinion on this one if anyone else stumbles on this thread.

    • About page 87: This made me really excited for a moment, and it seems like a possible good explanation, but a few things still confuse me. The narrator of this passage says the boy “looked at me and then he looked at the dog and he began to cry and to beg for the dog’s life and I promised I would not hurt the dog.” Assuming we’re talking about the dog from the town, it would be the boy’s father that he begged not to hurt the dog. The “she” referenced could even be the dog, rather than the woman from the end of the novel: “She walked away down the road.”

  5. Olie

    Hey there, not sure if you’ll look for an answer almost a year later, but I just finished the book and that’s exactly how I read p.87. As soon as I finished the book I thought that first-person narrative was the other man. Also, there’s a woman in that paragraph, the mother of that other boy.

  6. Rob Cavender

    Regarding p.87. I read this first person narrator as the being the father recollecting an earlier occasion when they encountered a dog, a different dog to the one the boy and his father hear just prior to this. The boy (main boy) begs for this dog’s life. Why? Because someone intends to kill it. The father fashions a noose to catch it and immediately mentions the “three cartridges in the pistol. None to spare.” Why none to spare? Because there is a bullet for each of them – the father, the boy and the boys’ mother (the one who commmits suicide by slcing herself with lava rock – “a falke of obsidian”) I don’t see this being a first person viewpoint of the tracker who emerges at the end of the novel because he has two children and a wife so the three cartridge comment would be superfluous and not only that, he has a shotgun. The three cartridges mentioned here are significant, however, because earlier in the novel, when the boy and his father meet the road rat and kill him, the road rat comments “You won’t shoot…You aint got but two shells”, and during the flashback conversation in which his wife expresses her desire to end her life, she says “I should have done it a long time ago. When there were three bullets in the gun instead of two”. Where did the other bullet go then? Later in the novel, the man whittles fake bullets whilst they are in the bunker and “when he had all five of them done he fitted them into the bores,..” I assume the pistol is a six shooter so this means that the man had only one live bullet left after killing the road rat. That means he had two bullets before he killed the road rat. On page 87 he has three. So where did the other bullet go? I think it was used to kill a dog for food in a moment before the novel’s narrative begins, a point which the man is now directly relating to us. The only person moving at this point is the woman – “She walked away down the road”. So is the mother responsible for shooting the dog? Or is the mother walking away because she can’t bear to watch the father kill the dog? The father says “and I promised I would not hurt the dog” – not I promise I won’t kill the dog or I promise no one else will harm the dog. This is carefully worded and goes to the heart of the relationship of trust between the boy and his father. If the father promised no harm to the dog and then out of necessity for survival acted contrary to what the boy understood to be the spirit of his promise by killing the dog, it’s not surprising that the boy keeps an eye on the father when he fixes a cup of cocoa for the boy and hot water for himself, prompting the following exchange:
    You promised not to do that, the boy said.
    You know what , Papa…
    I have to watch you all the time, the boy said.
    I know.
    If you break little promises you’ll break big ones.

    This is why the boy asks his father during the chronological present of the novel after they hear the dog, “We’re not going to kill it are we, Papa?” and the man kisses him saying “We won’t hurt the dog…I promise”
    The father has to break through the narrative to personally recall and admit, confess perhaps, the point at which the trust between them was compromised in the past.

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