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Post-apocalypse stories have a certain appeal to me, probably stemming from being a child of the malaise-ridden, nuclear-winter-threatened, cold-war-dominated 1970s-1980s.  So, when I discovered that there was a like-themed movie coming out this fall called The Road, and that it was based on a novel, well, naturally I bought the book.

And jeebus…that’s four wasted hours that I’ll never get back.

I’d heard the name Cormac McCarthy before, but only in the context of fawning book reviews and Oprah book club recommendations. An Oprah recommendation alone is ordinarily enough to torpedo any interest I might have in reading a book, but I figured if it was a post-apocalypse story, I’d give it a shot.  One expects her approved reading list to include hairsplitting sob stories, victim-canonizations, deeply-moving dramas of emotional catharsis, and messages of merit-divorced self-esteemifying and personal-improvementization — but a book said to contain depictions of cannibalism and other uncivilized behavior is different enough to warrant a deeper look.  I should have trusted my instincts.

McCarthy’s use of language approximates that of an imitative ten-year-old who has read way too much Hemingway and memorized a thesaurus. He writes in a broken grammar “style” which may get him rave reviews among the literati but would have earned him an “F” in basic composition. It’s a tedious chore to sort through page-long runs of unmarked dialogue, trying to follow who says what to whom (quotation marks are completely absent, and only rarely is one given a cue by which to decipher who is speaking when).  Until I looked up McCarthy’s bio, I assumed from the book’s language that he was an Irishman who had never visited the United States, attempting unsuccessfully to speak in an “authentic American voice”.  Throw in laughably clumsy attempts at poetic turns of phrase (some of which hinge embarrassingly on an incorrect homophone), and the whole thing comes off as a pretentious hack job worthy of a Bulwer-Lytton award rather than a Pulitzer.

Story-wise, The Road is less a novel than a treatment for one. There is no plot. The story consists entirely of a man and his young son trudging over what appear to be the Appalachians, heading across the dead land to the similarly dead ocean, running into bad guys, and looking for food.  It’s a sequence of travel, starve, find food at last minute while dodging bad guys, move on — lather, rinse, repeat. There is no meaningful goal before them — there is no rescue waiting for them at the shore, no enclave of civilization they are trying to reach, in fact no indication at all of why the ocean is their destination beyond it being warmer to the south. What central mystery there is — the nature of the world-ending apocalypse — is never explored beyond a couple of vague throwaway lines in flashbacks. If the point of the story is to show that the characters are lost and are just moving along for its own sake with no idea where they’re going and no idea how they got there, I’ll give McCarthy credit for at least getting that across to the reader.

The story abruptly ends with the father dying from some never-clarified ailment (he coughed a lot), and the boy being taken in on the last page by a family which comes out of nowhere and appears to be surviving the unspecified world-ending calamity quite successfully. How this is possible is never explained, and little is said about them other than that they’re “good guys” and they “carry the fire”. It amounts to a deus ex machina, which I admit I hardly found surprising after slogging through the rest of this turd of a book.

It also fails as a disturbing depiction of human depravity after all order has broken down – which is how it was described in some of the reviews I read before buying it. I’ve seen things vastly more unsettling in most episodes of The X-Files than what was described in this book. McCarthy couldn’t even manage to make a basement filled with sex slaves/human shawarma shocking or (worse) significant to the story.

One might counter that there isn’t supposed to be a plot (quelle post-modern!), that the book is really about the characters and their interactions with each other. The Amazon reviews gush about the book illustrating the power of love and the will to survive, and the Christian themes embedded in the story. Okay, I can see that. But it’s still lousy storytelling to cheat the reader of a full understanding of how the characters came to be in the situation where their love and will to survive for each other is tested — it divorces their interactions from their full context, abstracting them to the point of meaninglessness. 

Suffice to say I didn’t like The Road as a book, and I’m not at all clear how they’ll turn it into a movie without completely rewriting it as was done with The Postman.  The latter adaptation was godawful, but given the material they have to work with even a bad adaptation of The Road  couldn’t help but be an improvement over the novel. Lesson learned: I should have stuck with my instincts regarding Oprah reviews.

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