Fathom Mag

Grace in the Midst of Chaos

A review of The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Published on:
October 24, 2016
Read time:
4 min.
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I’m a bit late on the book train. I usually find myself reading books a few years after everyone else. I read The Poisonwood Bible fifteen years after it was published. The Corrections, White Teeth, Bel Canto, all the same. I promise one day I’ll get caught up and review books that have actually been published in the last year, but today is not that day. Sorry, people.

This week I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy was always one of those authors I kept putting off. It wasn’t because I was scared to read him, or nervous I wouldn’t like him, or that I heard bad things about him, but it was rather that I had other books I wanted to read, and Mr. McCarthy just kept getting pushed further and further back for the sake of books I thought to be more interesting. It was in an airport when the book I was currently reading turned out to bore me so much I had to go to the overpriced bookstore to buy another book. That’s when The Road caught my eye. (And I saw it was a quick read. So why not, right?)

Typography: The Secret Power of Christianity

Writing isn’t separate from its context. Typography is nearly as important as the words.

Cormac McCarthy is an author who has written some of the greatest books of the past thirty years. Those great books were adapted into screenplays which then become some of the greatest movies of the past thirty years—No Country for Old Men and The Road. To say the least, he is a good writer. He writes clear, concise sentences that get right to the point. A page in his novel is usually half the words of other authors with twice the density and meaning.

Cormac McCarthy is the embodiment of good writing. No modifiers. Interesting verbs. Sharp dialogue. Active voice. Short sentences. McCarthy cuts out every word that can’t bench 250 pounds. His words feel like lead weights. (The font in the book was also pretty thick, so that might be a contributing factor.) He is, in my mind, the living heir of Ernest Hemingway. Cut the crap. Straight to the point. Ninety percent of what he is saying is below the water. That kind of stuff.

It is a delight to read, though, because of its clarity. Sometimes I wish more writers today followed people like Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway. It would, at the very least, make some novels more readable and entertaining.

Cormac McCarthy
Photo by Marion Ettlinger

This specific novel is about a father and a son living in apocalyptic America. Fires have ravaged the entire country so much that burnt trees and ash remain—which is kind of a good description of the writing style of McCarthy. The father and the son have a strange relationship of understood love, endurance, and curtness. They love each other with few emotions involved, they push each other to keep pushing, and they speak in sentences no longer than five or six words. 

The father’s aim is to endure—and to teach his son how to endure. They have a phrase they repeat to each other in the story—“keep the fire burning”—which is just a gorgeous was of saying keep pressing on. McCarthy in one spot in the novel says, “Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.” His aim is survival.

The son’s aim is much different. The son simply wants to show grace. Whenever they meet someone, he wants to help them in some way, give them a can of peaches, or a blanket. It’s in the bleak landscape of gray and black and wet ash and burned trees and rotting corpses that there are rays of bright red grace. There are moments when there is an act of kindness, or when the father and the son are speaking and being affectionate toward one another that fuel the novel and its savage beauty.

From the very beginning of the story, death looms. The father and the son walk among corpses strewn all over the earth and they themselves are always close to death. After the first twenty pages of this novel, you will know one of them is going to die. I did, at least. But the reason McCarthy keeps your interest and keeps you turning the pages is that you want to know who dies and who lives. Will the father—the stronger, wiser, more enduring one—survive? Or will the son—who makes it his aim to be kind and gracious like a human being should be?

This book, now that I think of it, is kind of a companion to Station Eleven, sans art. It’s an exploration of what makes a human being a human being. When everything is stripped away and you have nothing to hide behind, what makes someone any different than an animal? Those who strive to outlive others—who go by the maxim survival of the fittest—act like animals in this novel. Those who show grace and love to other people they don’t even know act like humans. We not only need art to be human, like Station Eleven suggests, we need kindness, grace, and a willingness to put others’ needs before our own. Darwin was wrong. It’s not survival of the fittest—it’s survival of the most compassionate.

This is actually a strange thing too. McCarthy is known for being a very violent author. He doesn’t shy away from blood, dead bodies, and lots of grit, but here he seems to show the light within the darkness, and that light shines brighter than a fire in the middle of the night. And the darker McCarthy paints his picture, the brighter the light can shine through. (I think Edgar Allan Poe said this, so I’m not taking credit.)

As a reader, this might be the fastest moving slow novel you will ever read. It’s like watching someone break their leg. All you want to do is look away because of how gruesome it is, but you can’t. It’s too captivating. It draws you in too much. And this might be McCarthy’s best quality.

Jonathan Minnema
Jonathan is the video producer for Fathom Magazine. You can reach him at jon@fathommag.com and @jonminnema.

Cover image by Bjørn Tore Økland.

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