The Road

Flying into Vegas last night to speak at a conference hosted somewhere inside the Venetian Hotel by the Urban Land Institute, I read Cormac McCarthy’s recent novel, The Road. It’s a book I’d long wanted to read but kept putting off for some reason, and I’m glad I finally read it.

[Image: By Trevor Manternach, found during a Flickr search].

If you don’t know the book, the basic gist is that the United States – and, we infer, everything else in the world – has been annihilated in what sounds like nuclear war. But all of that is just background for the real meat of the book.
The Road follows a father and son as they walk south, starving, toward an unidentified coast. They cross mountains and prairies and forests; everything is burned, turned to ash, or obliterated. The father is coughing up blood and the skies are permanently grey.
Briefly, I’d be interested to hear, out of sheer curiosity, where other people think the book is “set” – because it sounds, at times, like the hills of New York state or even western Massachusetts; at other times it sounds like Missouri, Tennessee, parts of Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast; at other times like the Sierra Nevadas, hiking down toward the rocky shorelines just north of, say, Santa Barbara. Sometimes it sounds like Oregon.
In any case, the only glimpse we get of the war itself is this – and all spelling and punctuation in these quotations is McCarthy’s own:

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and the turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
I dont know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I’m not.

After this, the landscape outside is described as “scabbed” and “cauterized,” heavily covered in ash.
McCarthy memorably writes: “They sat at the window and ate in their robes by candlelight a midnight supper and watched distant cities burn.”
The wife soon gone – indeed, she’s only ever present through flashbacks – the father and son stumble south pushing their food supplies, a few toys, and some “stinking robes and blankets” in an old grocery cart. They come across Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like houses, as some bands of bearded survivors have taken to cannibalism.
Interestingly, every house seems vaguely terrifying to the young boy in a way that the dead forests and dried riverbeds simply do not. Empty houses on hills with their doors left open.
So their journey down the road continues:

By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. (…) Out on the roads the pilgrims 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.

And then they approach what appears to have been a place actually struck by those distant concussions of sound and light, the perhaps atomic bombs of an unexplained war:

Beyond a crossroads in that wilderness they began to come upon the possessions of travelers abandoned in the road years ago. Boxes and bags. Everything melted and black. Old plastic suitcases curled shapeless in the heat. Here and there the imprint of things wrested out of the tar by scavengers. A mile on and they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Take my hand, he said. I dont think you should see this.

It’s a good book. It’s not perfect; a friend of mine quipped that it ends with “a failure of nerve,” and yet the nostalgic tone of the book’s final paragraph suited me just fine.
Which just leaves us, readers of things like this, preparing in whatever small ways we can to survive some undefined possible apocalypse of our own time here, the future politicized, the reservoirs drying, the religions hording arms and the oceans full of plastic. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

Cormac McCarthy: The Road

27 thoughts on “The Road”

  1. I just finished “The Road” also. I think they may have traveled south through the Southwest. Eventually they start reading material in Spanish, so maybe they made it to the Gulf of Mexico, or the Pacific Ocean.

    You might be interested in this:

    Hillcoat directed “The Proposition,” which is a very McCarthyesque western (worth checking out, I think).

  2. Geoff,

    The passages are eerie and full of potential visual images. I am now thinking about the similar feelings that some of the residents may be having in Southern California in the Santa Ana wind and firestorms.


  3. Interesting. I live in Malibu and just read “The Road” a few weeks ago. Loved the book, but I haven’t thought of it during the events lately. I think mainly because that book left me with an overall feeling of it being cold all the time in the nuclear winter. Malibu the past few days has been HOT, HOT.

    I have been surfing though. And I’ve thought about the experience as being like surfing after an apocalypse to be sure.

  4. reading this book was one of those experiences where im astounded at the praise heaped on a piece of work. i seriously do not understand why this book is being so lauded.

    “the passages are eerie and full of potential visual images.” well what kind of author would you be if you couldn’t at least describe that when writing a book that consists almost entirely of a long slow aimless walk through a post-apocalyptic future? it pretty much goes with the territory – an already oft traveled one i might add.

  5. I just finished The Road as well and thought it was stunning. He used language and emotion with eerie precision…there is not one overwrought drop in this book, which I think is a major feat for any storyteller. Have you read Jose Saramago’s Blindness? It tells a similar, but wholly different story…and Saramago won the Pulitzer for it as well, I believe.

  6. I’d been going with the nuclear war theory myself, but couldn’t explain why so much of the world was intact, if falling apart. And then my dad – he gave me his copy – suggested an idea you might like: supervolcano.

    The ash, the heat, the description of the disaster that you’ve picked out – it does kinda fit. The one under Yellowstone has a primary ash zone that covers about 80% of North America, never mind the knock-on eruptions it might set off across the rest of the continent…

  7. I thought the book was amazing. Amazing that McCarthy could write about a bleak, empty landscape for 300 pages and have it never feel repetitive. I wondered where it might be set too. I thought the northeast maybe.

  8. I think the book takes place in the SouthEast. There is a reference to “kuduz”, also known as the “vine that ate the south”. Also there is a mountain watershed at 5000 ft which fits the description of the “NewFound Gap” in the great smokey mountains.

    As for the cause. I say Comet(s). Streak in the sky. Emp pluse. Little to no radiation. Massive fires.

  9. The author stated on an Oprah interview that his inspiration for the book derived from a trip to El Paso with his son. It took him another four years to actually write the book, though.

    This is not verified but Wikipedia claims: “The journey passes through towns and cities whose names are known but never named. The travelers apparently set out on their journey north of Knoxville, Tennessee, crossing the Tennessee River at that city; they notice sunken boats under the bridge there, a nod to McCarthy’s novel Suttree, in which the protagonist lives in a houseboat community in that location. They may continue through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, across the Great Smoky Mountains—probably over Newfound Gap, which has an elevation of 5,048 feet above sea level, equivalent to that given for the unnamed pass in the book (“The pass at the watershed was five thousand feet and it was going to be very cold.”). The path takes them through the Piedmont region of North Carolina and southeastward to the coast, perhaps that of South Carolina or Georgia.”

  10. “Saramago won the Pulitzer for it as well, I believe.”

    Difficult to pull off, as Saramago is Portuguese and the Pulitzer is awarded only to American authors. He did win the Nobel, not for Blindness in particular, but for his lifetime of work.

    Point taken, though, about the quality comparison between the two books.

  11. I also got the feeling they were heading westward. I also don’t think they covered as much ground and some others seem to think.

    I’m thinking Idaho to the Oregon coast.

    As for the poster that didn’t see what the big deal is about the book… well… to each his own. Personally I thought the book was undeniably great. At once scary and tender.

    I also think it was a nuclear winter, but the comet(s) or asteroid idea is pretty viable as well.

    Anybody ever read Lucifer’s Hammer? If you liked “The Road” I recommend it.

  12. Yes Blood Meridian is The One, one of the great American novels of the 20th century. It’s also impossible for him to better so he can be cut some slack with this late work, few writers of any description attain his heights. Read the first three pages of Suttree for a jaw-droppingly astonishing description of a city at night.

    I didn’t get “failure of nerve” from The Road, all I got was a writer in full command of his work. Post-apocalypse novels (Lucifer’s Hammer included) all make the same general story arc: life pre-The Event > The Event > life post-The Event which is usually a reordering and reconstruction. Cormac evidently wanted to stay away from any reconstruction scenario as much as he could, to explore what the final death of everything–physical, psychological and even spiritual–would look like. In that it’s worlds away from Earth Abides or Lucifer’s Hammer. Death is central to all his books, this one takes things to a global scale.

  13. I normally read your blog for the interesting architecture tidbits, but I’d like to thank you for posting about this book. I don’t think I would have heard about it otherwise, and after reading your review, I immediately checked our Library catalog to see if we had it. I finished it the next day, which is the fastest that I have ever read a book this size.

    It was truly an incredible read, and the images will be with me for some time.

    Thank you.

  14. I also disagree with the failure of nerve comment. I would say the main failing of the novel is the reliance on deus ex machina-style discoveries. I think if the majority of the populace has resorted to cannibalism they would have picked the countryside immaculately clean, no undiscovered houses or ignored shelters.

    Still loved it though, and more than willing to overlook my criticism.

    Finishing it made me ridiculously excited for No Country for Old Men.

  15. Late arrival, but yes, I recognized Newfound Gap from the story as well.

    I didn’t enjoy the book: it reminded me too much of the post-apocalyptic stuff I read when I was younger. But it did put me onto the Border Trilogy which was better: “Pretty Horses” I liked best of all.

    Subscribed to this site, finally: not sure how I neglected to do it before.

  16. One aspect of the book which I found unrealistic was that there was nothing growing, anywhere, even several years after the supposed apocalyptic event. If that ever happened, it seems likely that many plant seeds would survive in the soil, and the landscape would green up in the year following the disaster.

  17. Nuclear winter, super volcano, asteroid hit all make sense, but the complete dying of all plant life is what is shocking. Trees still standing (some with their leaves on) but dead. Even in nuclear winter or following a super volcano, many plants would survive (certainly if buildings were still standing). Even the mushrooms they find are shriveled and dead. Radiation would not be solely to blame, because it would likely affect people more than plants.

    Which suggests some sort of pathogen that universally wipes out plants and fungi.

  18. I feel that he has left the location description from the story to add emphasis to the paradigms the story so closely follows. The use of idealism and realism are all to evident in the story. It’s a good discussion if you look far enough into it.

  19. The Last Word said very little, I’m afraid, while trying to sound like they were saying something profound.

    While I defer to readers who thought they recognized certain terrain or had it confirmed by majority opinion via Wikipedia, I had pictured them travelling south and east towards Georgia or the Carolinas from the Great Lakes. No bias, either, as I write from teh west coast of Canada. It actually seemed strange to me that more posters didn’t think this.

    I heard about this book on an excellent CBC radio show called Talking Books, hosted by Ian Brown. Subsequently, Mr. Brown published a 3-part story in the Globe and Mail about raising a son with a serious genetic …disease? handicap? condition? One of the things I got most from the book was the father’s sense of responsibliity to his son, which was examined in its own way in Mr. Brown’s newspaper pieces. For the full story with photos and videos, see

    I have no interest in or connection with the G&M or Mr. Brown, other than being fans of both. If you enjoyed the parental aspect of The Road, then the article may well interest you as well.

  20. It’s not a nuclear war, or a comet, it’s Planet X which should pass very close to us around 2012. It has a very wide eliptical orbit. Speculation says it will incinerate the side of our planet it passes on. It’s as close to a comet as you can get, but has an incredible iron mineral content and is molten. So they say anyway!

  21. This is my second CM book and I remain disappointed. The endless fragments and lack of punctuation come off as gimmicky, and he never gets inside anyone’s head. The dialogue is monotonous, monosyllabic and one-dimensional (perhaps one person has elective mutism, or does the one-word answer thing in real life, but it is an epidemic in CM’s novels) and it makes it hard to have an emotional bond with any of his people. I find myself not caring if someone dies in his books. For the genre I would recommend The Atomic Cafe or The Quiet Earth for movies and Black Rain or The Rat by Gunter Grass for novels. (This is everything a nuke story should be, beautiful metaphors, irony, glimpses into the far future.) Raymond Brigg’s (snowman cartoon guy) graphic novel about his parents dying of radiation poisoning and of course The Will Come Soft Rains by RB are good too. I just finished The Children’s Hospital before reading this which coincidentally featured the end of the world, but it also contained some absurdism and religious irony which I always appreciate (but this **** book needed an editor, it was a lot longer than it had to be).

  22. I think Ellen is correct.
    It begins in Tennessee and proceeds southeast.

    At one point they pass a barn with “See Rock City” painted on the roof. These are common throughout northwest Georgia and TN, and refer to Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga.

    Makes sense when you consider that many of his other books are set in the same area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.