December 28, 2011

The Road

The RoadI’ve been putting off writing about The Road (read #5 in my Year of Reading at Your Mercy) because there is so much I could say about it. I’ll try to say a little instead, although I’m hardly any good at that. My friend Willard picked a doozy of a book, didn’t he? Who would have thought Willard of all people would lead me into the starkest post-apocalypse? And in response to his wondering if I’d get lost as often as he did while reading it, I must say that the text did trip me up sometimes, especially the dialog, which includes only a few tags and no quotation marks. The world of the The Road is gray, literally, and I think the experience of being “lost” at times as reader adds to the atmosphere of swirling ash and the dazed days of wandering. My friend Heather says the “grammar issues” make the book more intense. I think I agree.

Intense could be such an odd word to apply to this story though, because in essence it is a simple, streamlined account of a nameless father and son, everymen, traveling  through the wasteland of a ruined world toward a nameless destination. They encounter danger on several occasions, which is indeed intense and unsettling, but the crux of the book is the pair of them walking the road in monotony, on an odyssey of sorts, although they are not heroes heading home, unless home is nothing but a glint of fading memory and heroes only those few who still cling to each other, scattered among the dregs of humankind, carrying what little “fire” is left.

Yet the word intense applies at other times too, quiet times. Color bleeds right through the ash and before you know it your heart almost stops. There is hardly a shred of solid detail about location, but then we come upon a See Rock City sign. I swear I gasped. I live among those signs, here in East Tennessee, and I found my hand on my  heart. Another time, the father finds a single packet of grape Kool-Aid atop some abandoned kitchen cabinets and gives it to the boy. I could taste it all—the stiffened purple powder and the dust crackling down my throat. Later, he finds apples—apples in a dead world—and I just had to bite into one like Dorothy, like Eve. He unearths a pristine well of water, covered over like treasure. I never thought of clear as a color before, but it was, in that moment, one of the brightest colors I have known.

How can a book so distressing and disturbing about a world forlorn still shock you with its beauty? I don’t know, except to say it just does, and perhaps that says it all. The beauty lies in things you hardly think twice (or once) about in this world, while you’re trolling Facebook or deciding which new placemats to buy. It is taken for granted. On the road though, it just is and only is. And the core of it lies between the father and his son, each of whom keeps walking only because of the other, each the heat the other bears.

McCarthy parses stirling, jewel-like passages throughout the book, which often deliver us deep into a subconscious, like a Greek chorus asking us to listen close. But in the following such passage, the father speaks aloud. These words slapped me open. They come near the beginning, while he waits for his son to wake from sleep:

…he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.

The Road is a hard book to read, at times almost unbearable. I don’t know if you would want to read it, but I’m glad I did. I wept at the end, for many reasons.

Not sure if I should smack Willard or hug him around the neck.

I checked The Road out from the Knox County Public Library on my Kindle.