Reading as a Writer: “The Road”


In 1983, President Reagan ordered missiles sent to Europe to protect the NATO countries and the USSR reacted rather badly to what they perceived was a direct threat.  We learned later that our two nations had been as close, if not closer, to a nuclear exchange as we were in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

During this extraordinary and tense time, a question loomed in the sky for many: what would you do?  I live in a metropolitan area known to be on the USSR’s nuclear missile target list.  If someone had pushed the button in Moscow, we’d have had approximately 30 minutes left to life as we knew it.  What would you do if you knew you had only 30 minutes left to live?  This question blazed through most conversations.  The one answer that has always stuck with me came from a scientist, a biologist, who stated emphatically that he’d drive to where the projected ground zero would be.  He could not imagine the world after a nuclear attack, nor would he want to live in it.

Cormac McCarthy, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, has imagined America after some sort of widespread catastrophe that occurred several years before.  His descriptions of the landscape and weather suggest a post-nuclear winter.  Desolate, burned-out and cold.  He tells the story through a third person personal point of view, homing in on the experience of a man and his young son walking on the road.  They travel south, but this road trip is far different from any other road trip I’ve seen, read or experienced.  McCarthy explores how human beings would survive, what the landscape would be like, the weather, availability of food and water, and how human beings would interact.  The young boy asks about their status as “good guys” and who the “bad guys” are — McCarthy proceeds to give them the experiences to show who each are. 

McCarthy’s prose pulls the reader down into the maelstrom of this primitive world with what a poet friend called “Anglo-Saxon words.”  They are strong words, hard-sounding words, unusual and old.  He described a man’s teeth as being “claggy,” dawn as “chary,” hands as “claws scrabbled.”  I kept a notepad and pen next to me as I read in fascination both of the story and the use of language which supported the world he described.  Some other favorites:

  1. “The plaster ceiling was bellied in great swags….”
  2. “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
  3. “…a sound without cognate….”
  4. “Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.”

And some interesting words: granitic, meconium, rachitic, colliculus, seawrack, pampooties, pipeclayed, swale, chert, wimpled, torsional, middens, knurled, stoven…. 

His use of prepositions also interested me.  Instead of camping on land, they camped in it.  Instead of standing on the floor, they stood in it. 

The man has a pair of binoculars at the beginning, and McCarthy describes him as “glassing” the landscape or road when he looks through them.  The man “laved up the dark water” when getting water for them to drink.  The prose also has an off-rhythm feel to it, like it’s somehow off kilter but definitely not flowery.  These are two males he’s writing about in this story, and there are only one or two women that they meet, never under happy circumstances.  But then all the people that they meet are strangers.  The man and his son are friends to each other because they have no one else, “each the other’s world entire.”

I was prepared for a depressing book when I first picked it up, and a violent one because I’d heard that McCarthy’s stories can be brutally violent, but I wasn’t prepared for the horror at their experiences or the fear I felt for these two characters or for the despair I felt in my heart for humanity.  I understood why that scientist had responded the way he had back in 1983.

This novel will haunt me for the rest of my life, much as A Canticle for Liebowitz (by Walter M. Miller, Jr.) has since I read it in high school or the movie Testament.  I recommend it strongly, but also with the warning that it’s not for those who want fun entertainment or for the faint of heart.  This story will change you.

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5 responses to “Reading as a Writer: “The Road”

  1. Interesting notes on McCarthy’s use of language–very insightful. Some of the words I thought he made up and was tempted to check my dictionary as I read.

    I can’t say the book had the same effect on me–I don’t think it changed me–but it certainly was chilling.

    I also liked your reference to the film TESTAMENT. That was unforgettable and a film few have seen. It’s one of those films I’m not sure I could ever sit through again because it was so emotionally draining–but it’s a must watch for any adult.

    –DHS

  2. Your review makes seeing the movie even more enticing. I’d happily see anything Viggo Mortenson is in. One of the rare actors whose work impresses me so much that I would go, sight unseen, preview unseen – hell, I’d probably just go if I knew nothing else than ‘he’s in it’. McCarthy as an progenitor-author is attractive, as well.

    I’m stuck (sort of, it’s not like I have tons of free time to read non-school work). I decided I really want to see the movie after reading the basic plot and seeing who’s in it. Your review makes the story line even more attractive. The ‘stuck’ part is my general philosophy: if I haven’t read the book, don’t do it before seeing the movie. I’m looking forward to having a bit of free time around the holidays. After reading this, I’m very intrigued. But the movie’s coming out! What am I to do??

  3. I agree with you, David, about “Testament.” Now I’m going to check if there’s a DVD of it available….

  4. I’d happily see Viggo Mortensen in anything, too. For years I’ve admired his integrity in his work. I have a couple of his books, too. The photography is interesting, the poetry occasionally insightful.

    You’ll have time to read the book before the movie is released. I have no hard and fast rules about novels and movies — I’ve read the novel before and I’ve read it after seeing the movie. Each has its advantages. I remember reading “The English Patient” specifically because I knew a movie was being made and directed by Anthony Minghella whose work I love. I was also writing screenplays at the time so I read the novel trying to imagine how I’d write the screenplay. That’s probably one of the more challenging novels to adapt. So, I really admired Minghella’s screenplay as well as the movie.

    Have you read “Enigma” yet? You could always use that as a self-binding ploy….(smile)

  5. Yup, I finished Enigma. I just found Enigma admidst the enigma of “hey, what’s under that pile of stuff on top of my dresser I haven’t seen in 2 months? oh, yeah, it’s Cinda’s book!”

    I’ll try to remember to bring it, the next time I head to Stammtish. sheepish grin.

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