I finally got around to reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, he who wrote the novel No Country For Old Men and before that, The Border Trilogy, among other modern classics.  Either due to the popularity of the Coen Brothers’ version of No Country For Old Men or due to the popularity of The Road itself, the book is headed to the multiplexes as a cinematic adaptation.


Thoughts on the book:


Oh, it’s praise-worthy, all right.  You get the sense fairly quickly that this is real literature, that forty years from now (if we’re still here), that kids will be reading this in English class, and dumb kids like I was in high school English won’t realize that it’s a cool story, just because their teachers are making them read it.


Even to this day, the best way to draw a guy like me in to read high-minded literature is to set it in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Here’s what it is:  At the outset of the story, something abominable has happened to the America we know, coating it in wreckage and ash.  We’re never told exactly what destroyed the country, though there are sign posts.  In a way, the “what” doesn’t matter – the story is primarily about the relationship between a man and his young son, whose mother has been gone for years, who has been dead since not long after giving birth to him.  The man keeps the pretense of hope going in order to help his son survive – the boy keeps hope going because he more genuinely has it.  They walk a ravaged interstate highway, the titular road, in order to find warmth and food.  Along the way, they have to evade the few fellow survivors of the apocalypse – mostly thieves, wretches, and cannibals.


And that’s mostly it.  It’s a pretty simple story, but simplicity is deceptively difficult to accomplish in writing.  It takes a master to depict an entire world in few words.  Just look at the first sentence, which sums up the entire story –


“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”


Bang, that right away brings you into the story as it will come to unfold over the next couple hundred pages.  It evokes the barren, stark loneliness and danger of the world that has become, and the tenderness and warmth of his son that the man must try so desperately to maintain.


McCarthy, as he generally does, writes here without quotation marks or contractions.  The effect of this is immediacy.  Once you get used to the unconventionality of the practice, it speeds your eyes along the page at a quicker rate than most writers are able to achieve.  He’s directing your eyes.  This is an important tactic in several scenes in particular, where certain horrific atrocities witnessed by the man and boy come up so quickly that they have the same blunt, visceral impact on the reader that it would have on the characters.  And make no mistake, there are some hideous images in this book, though they are not at all included for exploitation or entertainment.  They are of a piece with the author’s intent, of the honest portrayal of a chaotic, hopeless earth.


Also noticeable and telling in the writing style is the fact that character names don’t exist.  The man and the boy are the man and the boy, and are not, to my memory, described in much more detail than that.  The other characters in the book might be more specifically physically described, but they aren’t given names either, which is honest – you wouldn’t learn a stranger’s name unless they trusted you enough to tell you.  In the case of our two protagonists, this decision on the part of McCarthy gives us an all-important sense of universality.  Either subconsciously or overtly, male or female, old or young, we are led to envision a piece of ourselves or our loved ones in the roles.  We picture our own fathers, our own sons, our brothers or grandfathers and so on.  This, plus the childlike, innocent effect that writing without contractions might evoke, makes us feel warmly towards the two.  It brings us right into caring about them and hoping that they are able to transcend their ordeal.




Thoughts on the upcoming movie:


All that said now, I would have wondered about the point of filming something so intimate and lyrical and not all that plot-heavy.  But if they’re going to do it, at least they made the right choice of director, in my opinion.  The guy who’s adapting The Road, John Hillcoat, is the same guy who did The Proposition, the colonial-Australian-set Western of a couple years ago, which was written and scored by Nick Cave with all the properties and quirks of a classic Nick Cave song.  In The Proposition, lawman Ray Winstone captures and forces outlaw Guy Pearce to hunt down an even worse outlaw, his brother, played by Danny Huston.  It’s the simplest, most biblical of premises:  Brother forced to hunt his own.  And the movie contains all the bad-ass-edness (and horror) which that set-up implies.  The Proposition also carried some memorable visual poetry.  That’s a friendly way of saying that, like The Road, it wasn’t too big on plot or characterization either, but also like The Road, it stuck to the ribs all the more for it.  The movie is about the story, sure, but also it is entirely not about the story.  It’s like a poem – a poem about violence.


Though not everyone I know felt the same about the movie, they all would admit that Hillcoat has a way with cinematic imagery, atmosphere, and the direction of gravelly, stubbly character actors.  So personally, I’d definitely watch Hillcoat’s next movie, and as it turns out, that movie will be The Road.  I saw a couple promo photos in the New York Times that were very, VERY encouraging in terms of an interesting look and tone.  And due to an interview I recently saw, apparently Michael K. Williams, the actor who will always be best known as Omar from The Wire will be playing a small role (I haven’t spoiled it for myself by checking which role), and Viggo Mortensen is playing the lead role of the man.  I can see how it could be a little distracting since Viggo has such a distinctive, even peculiar voice.  But he’s got such a timeless profile, that Nordic hero look that made him so perfect in The Lord Of The Rings movies, that I think it’s good casting, in keeping with the universality that I discussed earlier, that the role should have.  And he’s just such a good actor, so interesting and unusual, from Carlito’s Way to Eastern Promises.  Isn’t Viggo just about due for his Oscar?  Maybe starring in an adaptation of a popular, Oprah-endorsed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book will make that finally happen.  We’ll see!