Under most circumstances the books that come into our possession can have profound impacts on our lives, especially if they are read under the right conditions, by which I mean to say, that a certain times in our lives books seem to find us when we most need them. These books become our special companions providing a life-line to reason when reason seems to be all but absent from our empirical lives.
Yet another presidential debate was being televised, and as usual, I was under the impression that if I watched I would learn something about the candidates and where they stood on the issues. But this was a Republican debate, the third or fourth I had suffered through, and I felt that each time I tuned in I was losing more brain cells. This time I decided I had enough, so I went upstairs to my library to find something to read, anything that would take my mind off the insanity playing out before my eyes. After standing before my shelves for what seemed like an unusually long time, I took down Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel I had heard so much about, had never read, but had been meaning to for several years. I resisted watching the film version because I wanted to read the book first. Everything I heard about the novel suggested that it would be a powerful read, so I grabbed my headphones and my Iphone and went back downstairs. My wife was still watching the debate, so I poured myself a large bourbon and parked myself next to her.
I often read while listening to music, and in order to concentrate on whatever it is I’m reading, I always choose an instrumental piece of music, most often jazz or classical. This time I decided to download the soundtrack from the film version of The Road, composed and performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The pair often collaborate on film soundtracks and while one can hear familiar themes that also occur in their more popular band, The Bad Seeds, there is a melancholic feel to the music they write for film that doesn’t really come across in their rock (if one can call it that) band. Remember, I had yet to see the film adaptation to McCarthy’s book, so I really didn’t know what I was in for other than what I had heard. It didn’t take long for me to get lost in the book. Reading The Road with the music for the film accompanying me, and with the Republican candidates arguing back and forth on my television screen was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had. The book is powerful, and its sparse paragraphs, littered like icebergs in a thawing sea, represent the fictional loneliness and desperation of the novel’s subject matter. We are never sure if the father and son protagonists will make it to the next paragraph. When the end finally comes, as we know it will, we still find ourselves unprepared for it, and the dam of emotions that had been building up for over 200 pages bursts leaving the reader exhausted and spent. The novel is shocking in its content and simplicity, but it’s that simplicity, the way the story seems to limp along the metaphorical road of our reading, that catches us unawares and leaves us shell shocked.
McCarthy’s literary power comes from his stripped down layering of images along this textual and metaphorical road. Consider the following paragraph, chosen almost at random:
They slept through the night in their exhaustion and in the morning the fire was dead and black on the ground. He pulled on his muddy shoes and went to gather wood, blowing on his cupped hands. So cold. It could be November. It could be later. He got a fire going and walked out to the edge of the woodlot and stood looking over the countryside. The dead fields. A barn in the distance. (75)
Images like this burn themselves into the reader’s mind. McCarthy strips his novel of conventional punctuation (as he does with most of his novels) and presents his reader with sparse, but flock-like paragraphs floating on the imaginative horizon of nightmares. But these particular nightmares are as much a part of American mythology as those written by Cooper, Faulkner, and Hemingway.
To call The Road one of the great American novels is too limiting. The Road is one of the greatest novels of all time. Only a handful of books (in the context of how many books are published each year) can so powerfully capture the mood of its time, yet anticipate and articulate the fears of present and future generations, while incorporating the author’s (McCarthy’s) entire oeuvre, which includes everything that the author might have read. The Road is a masterpiece worthy to be placed alongside The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Huck Finn, Leaves of Grass, The Sound and the Fury, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Beloved, and so many others. The Road is Orwell’s 1984 on heroin, surviving just to score another fix. How do I know The Road is a masterpiece? Because for almost a month I have thought of little else, and have not left its landscapes even after having finished the book. It’s like a powerful dream or nightmare that you can’t shake yourself free from after having awaken.