bleak, horrifying, painful beauty

February 27, 2009

Forgive me if I seem a little down, I just finished reading (well, listening to) The Road.

I’m feeling a little verklempt.

I was supposed to go to a book group tonight to talk about it, but I can’t make it. (Sorry Doug! Consider this my contribution. And thanks for the invite.)

Where have I been during Cormac McCarthy’s career? I mean, I know, No Country For Old Men, right? Which was awesome, some trailing off at the end notwithstanding.

But he’s written like 10 novels. I know what I’ll be doing for the next little while.

The Road, essentially, is a man and his young son wandering the post-apocalyptic world, battling cannibalistic survivors, the cold, hunger, and most of all, hopelessness.

For sheer bleakness, it’s hard to beat. It has a weird incongruency that fascinates me–The dialog is spare, almost bare-bones, even just plain rough, but the narration and description of the action, such as it is, and the landscape (which is brutally, totally wasted) is like reading 100 enchantingly heartrending poems, laid end to end. I have rarely, if ever, okay never, read something so utterly horrible described so lovingly, so beautifully, so artfully.

I really don’t want to spoil any part of the book for those of you who haven’t read it, and so few things actually happen, that to describe them is to maybe undermine them, but here’s just a sample of the awesome awesomeness of McCarthy’s prose (I listened to it on cd, so I’m grabbing my quotes off the web):

“The land was gullied and eroded and barren. The bones of dead creatures sprawled in the washes. Middens of anonymous trash. Farmhouses in the fields scoured of their paint and the clapboards spooned and sprung from the wallstuds. All of it shadowless and without feature. The road descended through a jungle of dead kudzu. A marsh where the dead reeds lay over the water. Beyond the edge of the fields the sullen haze hung over the earth and sky alike. By late afternoon it had begun to snow and they went on with the tarp over them and the wet snow hissing on the plastic.”

And this:

“The boy was all that stood between him and death. He saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe.”

I’m telling you, this is Hemingway crossed with George Romero, crossed with the Bible. But not the happy parts of the Bible.

The Man says to his son, “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” And, um, he does.

And, as horrible and dark and hopeless as this book mostly feels, its prose elevates the story, and if you can’t keep reading for the darkness, you must keep reading for the beauty.

In the end, it leaves you with a tiny spark of faith, unlike Mcarthy’s No Country For Old Men, which is essentially a capitulation to the rising tide of implaccable, unstoppable evil. Here, at least, he throws us a tiny little bone of hope to chew on while the world goes to Hell. So to speak.

30 Responses to “bleak, horrifying, painful beauty”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    word.

  2. bikemike Says:

    uh, yeah, that was my word, you know, up there.

  3. iheartfilm Says:

    The blind dogs of the sun in their running.

    Great line.

    Chris

  4. mo7s Says:

    I put that book on my top 5. It actually didn’t even feel like I was reading, the writing style was so stream of consciousness. And intimate because of the horror and the feeling there were only two souls left on the planet, totally intertwined. You really summed it up well, such beautiful writing about something so horrible. Really remarkable.

  5. Bob B. Says:

    I read a few McCarthy novels back in the late 90s, and by “a few” I now realize I mean one — All the Pretty Horses. Good book, terrible movie. There’s something about McCarthy’s style that puts me off just enough. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s alive. When he’s dead, I’ll be able to respect him more.

  6. Nick - Seattle Says:

    The Road is the next book in my pile – i can’t wait to get to it – the guy in the book store acutally warned me about how bleak it was.
    Right now I am reading a great book by Jim Harrison – True North. Like you I have been wishing i started reading him years ago (although i actually read Sundog about 10 yrs ago and never followed it up).
    I love finding a new author – especially ony with a big back catalogue.

  7. Bob Says:

    ‘All the Pretty Horses’, second that as a great book, so is ‘The Crossing’.

    ‘The Road’ was a step above, for me at least, never have i read a book that i both didn’t want to put down, yet did want to put down. I could not read it every night, because, some nights I just didn’t need that, there are pieces of the book that remain vivid in my mind and will haunt me for a long time. Yet the main thing that sticks with me is the tiny bit of hope that drove them forward.

  8. Rachel W. Says:

    well, this is on my list of books to read. Daniel’s friend Ryan Barnes has highly recommended it to me numerous times. I’m afraid of the darkness though. still not too sure i’m going to partake in all that black beauty.

  9. KanyonKris Says:

    Good review, dug. Bold of you to read a downer book during the tail end of Winter.

    Reading “The Road” was like being pulled in two directions at once – the dismal story and the soaring prose. I liked the book, but sometimes wondered why.

    I plan to read another McCarthy, “Blood Meridian”. It was #3 on a poll of critics for the best novels of the last 25 years (behind Beloved and Underworld). From the synopsis it sounds grim, but I liked “The Road” enough I’m willing to give it a shot.

  10. Sophia Says:

    The Road was the first book I read my McCarthy, too. And I went into it thinking I wouldn’t really like it, but then I started reading and was completely mesmerized. I couldn’t even describe how McCarthy did it because the story was so simple, but I was tormented and (a little) uplifted at the same time.

  11. KanyonKris Says:

    Rachel – I told my wife flat out she shouldn’t read it and wouldn’t like it.

    Most adults can handle the bleakness, but the threats to the young boy are: good because they are gripping and tense, but bad because most people have a strong instinct to protect children and these situations are NOT comfortable to read (unless you have no soul or something).

    Now I’m going to generalize and stereotype here so please don’t be offended – women, especially mothers, feel this attachment and protector role toward children more strongly and I’m not sure you’d enjoy visualizing these scenes. But you’re a big girl and can decide for yourself. It was an Oprah book club pick so, uh, not sure what that means.

    I’m with Bob, I’ll be haunted by some of the scenes painted in that book for quite a while.

  12. dug Says:

    rachel, just read it. it’s awesome.

  13. Rachel A Says:

    I loved this book, which is strange for me because I’m drawn to Dickens and Jane Austen, and far away from violent movies. I’m sure it was absolutely because of the beauty in the writing, but also because I thought there was a thread of hope through the entire novel. Also, I’m good at glossing over the disturbing scenarios so I don’t frame permanent pictures in my mind.

    I’ve been wondering what other books of McCarthy’s I’d like, since I don’t think “No Country for Old Men” would be on the list. I’ll have to try “The Crossing” and maybe “Horses”.

  14. KanyonKris Says:

    Rachel – Sorry if I came across too strong. Just wanted to warn you it’s heavy and not everyone will like it because of that.

    And it’s not like I tell my wife what to do. I just know what she likes and doesn’t like. I like plenty of movies and books that are heavy and don’t end happy, but she likes very few. So I told her my opinion that she wouldn’t enjoy “The Road”.

  15. bikemike Says:

    just went to my local book store and picked up the road. now bear with me here…got home and INSTANTLY had to go to the “reading room”, took the book in with me…half a chapter later, i’m hooked.

    a good book in the reading room is freaking awesome.

    dugs book club…i’m in.

  16. KanyonKris Says:

    bikemike – I’m sure dug will want to borrow books from you.

  17. bikemike Says:

    o.k. i’m already half way through with this book and even had a dream about it last night. i guess it’s slated for a movie but in my dream jeff daniels is the father, not saying that’s who i’d pick but dreams don’t lie…do they

    this book is really in my head.

  18. Rachel W. Says:

    KanyonKris, I appreciate your thoughts. As a mother I am certain I would NOT do well with threats to a young boy. I didn’t like Kite Runner for that reason. Although it was very well written, the horrible things that happened to children in that book made me strongly dislike it. I think I will have to pass on this one. Dug, thanks for the “heads up” even though I am sure you didn’t mean your post to actually cause me NOT to read it.

  19. forgingahead Says:

    Nothing better than a good book.

  20. Joel Says:

    Dug, the Road haunted me for weeks. I think it is a hard read for any parent. I wasn’t going to read it because I could tell just from the synopsis that it would be hard on me. I stayed up until 3:00 a.m. one night to finish it just because I couldn’t sleep until I found out how it ended. I haven’t been that emotionally touched by a book in a long time.

    I am curious to see how it comes across on screen. Aragorn is a great choice for the Dad.

  21. tohellandback1st Says:

    parable of the sower, Octavia Butler

  22. Geoff (John West's friend) Says:

    The Road is great. “The basement” scene continues to haunt me and I read the book last summer…I still can’t shake it.

    Blood Meridian is in my top 25 books of all time. It’s McCarthy’s best work, in my opinion.

  23. mark Says:

    Good books aside, Dug, this is some of your best prose:

    “The dialog is spare, almost bare-bones, even just plain rough, but the narration and description of the action, such as it is, and the landscape (which is brutally, totally wasted) is like reading 100 enchantingly heartrending poems, laid end to end.”

    Nice.

  24. Robert Says:

    I read it recently too. It’s an intense experience. I’ve read three by CM now, and have mixed feelings. Mostly I dig his writing, though, and The Road was definitely a highlight, if a deeply disturbing book about the apocalypse can be considered a highlight.

  25. brkeyes7 Says:

    dug, you know how I know you’re gay? You go to a book club. Actually, that is just one of dozens of reasons.

  26. dug Says:

    brad, i didn’t say i go to a book club. i said i got INVITED to a book club.

    not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  27. bikemike Says:

    just finished the book…crap.

    if the movie is the same…i’ll have to be the last person out. maybe i’ll wait for netflix.

  28. usimpto Says:

    I’ve been a fan of Cormac’s for years. All his books have that often violent, haunting, simple prose that makes them beautiful. I too was hesitant to read The Road but couldn’t put it down. Start with All the Pretty Horses and read that cowboy trilogy and you’ll want to read the rest of his stuff.

  29. dug Says:

    bikemike, i know, right? but you’re a better person now, aren’t you?

    usimpto, i’ve got blood meridian on order.

  30. bikemike Says:

    brilliant book, thanks dug.
    going to start the trilogy now.


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