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“Shorn of history and context, Cormac McCarthy’s other nine novels could be cast as rungs, with The Road as a pinnacle. This is a very great novel, but one that needs a context in both the past and in so-called post-9/11 America.
“…we should remember that the history of Cormac McCarthy and his achievement is not an American dream but near on 30 years of neglect for a writer who, since The Orchard Keeper in 1965, produced only masterworks in elegant succession. Now he has given us his great American nightmare.
The Road is a novel of transforming power and formal risk. Abandoning gruff but profound male camaraderie, McCarthy instead sounds the limits of imaginable love and despair between a diligent father and his timid young son, ‘each other’s world entire.’ The initial experience of the novel is sobering and oppressive, its final effect is emotionally shattering.
“All of this is utterly convincing and physically chilling. The father is coughing blood, which forces him and his son, ‘in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep,’ on to the treacherous road southward, towards a sea and – possibly – survivable, milder winters. They push their salvage in a shopping cart, wryly fitted with a motorcycle mirror to keep sentinel over that road behind. The father has a pistol, with two bullets only. He faces the nadir of human and parental existence; his wife, the boy’s mother, has already committed suicide. If caught, the multifarious reavers will obviously rape his son, then slaughter and eat them both. He plans to shoot his son – though he questions his ability to do so – if they are caught. Occasionally, between nightmares, the father seeks refuge in dangerously needy and exquisite recollections of our lost world.
They move south through nuclear grey winter, ‘like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world,’ sleeping badly beneath filthy tarpaulin, setting hidden campfires, exploring ruined houses, scavenging shrivelled apples. We feel and pity their starving dereliction as, despite the profound challenge to the imaginative contemporary novelist, McCarthy completely achieves this physical and metaphysical hell for us.
“Such a scenario allows McCarthy finally to foreground only the very basics of physical human survival and the intimate evocation of a destroyed landscape drawn with such precision and beauty. He makes us ache with nostalgia for restored normality.
“The vulnerable cultural references for this daring scenario obviously come from science fiction. But what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy’s late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description.”