Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Road


Somebody got a bright idea: “Let’s make another ‘Road’ picture!” You know, those seven zany Bob Hope/Bing Crosby/Dorothy Lamour pictures of the ‘40s and early ‘50s full of ad-libbing, comic asides, inside jokes, and other hijinx. Chris Rock was going to be the Crosby character, Will Ferrell would be Hope, and Jennifer Lopez would be Lamour. They got a script and were all ready to go with it, then they gave it to another writer for a final polish … Cormac McCarthy. He changed the title from The Road to Afghanistan to The Road to the Pulitzer Prize, and got to work. It was a terrible script, so depressing that no less than three studio executives committed suicide after reading it, but they went ahead and made it anyway, as The Road. Hell, Cormac’s last picture was No Country For Old Men, and it won the Oscar. What they forgot was that that picture had an actual plot …

I’d really like to leave with that little joke, but I hated this thing so badly, book and movie, that I just have to go on a bit more. I might say that The Road was the most depressing novel ever written, but that would be ignoring another McCarthy horror, what Roger Ebert (a big McCarthy fan) called the most violent novel ever written, Blood Meridian. I got about a third of the way through that piece of shit and tossed it in the garbage. (It was a library book; I had to fish it out, with tongs.) I wanted to exorcise it. It’s that awful.

I know McCarthy can write a book that—while violent—doesn’t make you want to gag. No Country For Old Men was a good story, book and movie. I haven’t read anything else by him, and I don’t intend to. It all just makes me wonder. The Road won the Pulitzer Prize. Many critics have placed it, or Blood Meridian, among the best books of the decade, or even of the last 100 years. McCarthy has been compared to Melville. Oprah recommended The Road, for crying out loud. What the hell is going on here? I hate to be a doom-crier myself, but it often feels to me as if it is some basic sickness, some flaw or degeneration in our culture itself that books like this get such praise from the literati. Add to that graphic novels/films like Sin City and a huge number of video games (which the literati sneer at, but seem to me to be no worse than these awful books) and I am filled with despair at the point we have come to. Modern art can’t deal with anything other than the ugliest of human emotions, or the existential emptiness of our lives … or so all the critics seem to perceive it.

You probably know the story, even if you haven’t subjected yourself to the book or movie. A Man and A Boy are traveling down a road through a blasted landscape where nothing lives. No plant, no animal. (Okay, there is a beetle in the movie.) What happened is never explained. They dodge roving bands of cannibals. They get sicker and hungrier. The Man dies, and The Boy is taken in by a passing stranger. (In the movie, a passing family; not so depressing, I guess.) The end.

And I just can’t figure it out, why so many people liked this. I sampled comments from the distinct minority who hated it, and one complaint was that the disaster was never explained. That didn’t bother me, even though I’m an SF writer who tends to like explanations. I understand that it was meant to be a generic apocalypse, a metaphor, if you like, for all the ways we could destroy ourselves. Though I admit I caught myself wondering, at times, about practical things. Such as: there are only two sources of food left in the world. One is in cans, and the other is walking around on two feet. There is no hint that anything is different anywhere else, no Eden exists around the next turn in The Road. So what’s the fucking point? When the last can of Spam is eaten and the next-to-last human soup bone had been gnawed to the marrow by the last human, he will starve, and that’s the real end of the story.

The people who liked this pointed to the loving relationship between The Man and The Boy. The Man tells his son that they are “carrying the torch,” that they are the Good Guys, and that he will do anything to save The Boy’s life. I thought, Don’t do me any fucking favors, Dad. His Wife killed herself. I’m with her. And I wondered why The Boy was so good while The Man was degenerating into cruelty. The Boy was born after the holocaust; he knew nothing else but this blasted, sterile land. I just didn’t buy that he’d be so saintly good, so sympathetic to everyone he met. He made Tiny Tim seem like a nasty old miser. I know, okay, it’s symbolic somehow, the two represent things. I hate that.

I could go on, but I’ll wrap up with the writing style of the book. Here is where the critics really rhapsodized: McCarthy’s style is spare, elegant, poetic, stark, moving, restrained, emotional, luminous … on and on and on. What horseshit. This is one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. I don’t so much mind his affectations with punctuation (well, I do, really, but it’s a minor issue), his refusal to use quotation marks, apostrophes—dont instead of don’t—his war on the semicolon (I like semicolons; so sue me), but the plodding, thumping, repetitive rhythms of his prose just irritated me in just about every way I can be irritated. This book, this movie, are garbage. [On the upside, the dreadful novel was short with big margins and lots of white on the pages.]