Eric Recommends: ‘The Road’

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Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year and was on quite a few Best of 2006 lists. I have finally read it and can tell you it’s one of the most beautiful, emotionally devastating books I’ve ever read.

It’s set in a near post-apocalyptic future, where something (nuclear war, probably) has destroyed all animal life and most human life. A man and his little boy walk through the rubble, finding food where they can, avoiding marauders who would cannibalize them, hoping to find other survivors who can be trusted — other “good guys,” in the parlance of the man and the boy. They are good guys themselves, the man reassures his son, although it may be that the man is becoming less of a good guy as time passes and the situation becomes more desperate.

It is not a science-fiction or horror novel. We don’t learn what caused the devastation, because it’s irrelevant; that’s not what the book is about. McCarthy’s writing is spare all the way around. We don’t learn anyone’s names, nor specifically what part of the United States they’re wandering through. Only references to “the interstate” confirm that it even is the U.S.

McCarthy even writes largely without commas. Preferring to start a new sentence fragment where a comma would have gone. Mostly brief sentences like this. There are no chapter divisions. Contractions like “don’t” and “won’t” don’t get apostrophes. Dialogue does not have quotation marks. Usually I find tactics like these pretentious and annoying — “Ooh, look how modern I am! I don’t use punctuation!” — but it works here because it fits the stark desolation of the story. Everything has been pared down to its barest essentials.

The story itself isn’t particularly elaborate, but McCarthy’s vocabulary is; evidently the world’s thesauruses survived the apocalypse. What’s more, he writes beautifully, poetically, piercingly. It’s hard to cite individual passages. It’s more the overall effect. And when you boil it all down, it’s really just a story about the love between a little boy and his papa.