GAN Quest: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

the road“There is no God and we are his prophets.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂 or possibly 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ten years before the beginning of the novel, an apocalypse – unspecified but we are given to believe caused by the actions of mankind – has destroyed America and presumably the world. Now our protagonists, named only as the man and the boy, are journeying through the devastated and barren landscape in an attempt to reach the warmer climes of the southern coast before another winter sets in.

On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world.

As dystopian novels go, they don’t get much bleaker than this. All plant-life and most animal-life has been destroyed, and the implication is that the earth itself has been so badly damaged that nothing can grow in it. The remnants of humanity survived at first by eating any animals that lived through the disaster and by scavenging through shops and houses for canned or dried food. But as even these sources of sustenance began to run out, the survivors have formed gangs and turned to cannibalism as the only way to survive. The disaster has left the air so polluted with ash and dust that the sun can barely penetrate it, leaving the world grey and increasingly cold. Although nuclear winter is never specifically mentioned, it is implicit, with the result that each breath or drink of water is both life-sustaining and deadly, and the cotton masks the man and boy wear are seen for the entirely inadequate protection that they are. And the man is already coughing up blood.

There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn’t about death. He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things he’d no longer any way to think about at all.

the road2

In this desperate situation, what is there to hope for? The boy’s mother has already committed suicide and the man hopes that when the time comes he will have the courage to kill the boy and himself rather than see the boy become the victim of one of the gangs. The man and the boy are ‘each the other’s world entire’ – the ‘good guys’ struggling to maintain some kind of moral standard in this hellish existence. And there are hints that the boy, born at the time of the apocalypse, may be more than just a child – that he contains the goodness or perhaps the godship of the world, that his survival is symbolic of some greater survival. In the latter part of the book there is a curious reversal, where sometimes it is the boy who is reminding the man of what is ‘right’, and just occasionally it briefly becomes unclear which is which.

McCarthy tells the story in a kind of simplistic language for the most part, ignoring many of the rules and conventions of grammar. His sentence structure ranges from short, terse sentences to long rambling lists of actions connected by the ‘and’ word…

He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again.

the road3

I must admit I found this tedious in the extreme and for the first third or so of the book really had to struggle to keep going. However, there are also passages of great descriptive power that contain a kind of poetry, a poignant beauty, and gradually the overall effect becomes mesmeric. He builds up the picture of this dead world a layer at a time, like varnish, until suddenly I found I was immersed, not so much in the story as in the debate that is continually running in the man’s head – what is the right thing to do? To die together? To let the boy live and hope that somehow the ‘fire’ that he carries inside him can continue to burn? As the man’s health worsens both he and the reader know that the decision must be taken soon.

The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed this novel. Much of the language grated, some of the references were like being hit over the head with a blunt instrument (drinking the last can of Coke in the world, for example) and the mysticism was so vague that it felt a little hollow. But by about half-way through, I had become completely absorbed by it and have found myself thinking of it repeatedly in the week or so since I finished reading it. I’m not sure it’s quite as profound as it thinks it is, but it is undoubtedly thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty. With just a little uncertainty then, highly recommended…

* * * * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

white_flagI’m struggling with this. Yes, published in 2006, the book was written post-9/11 at a time when the US felt perhaps more threatened than at any other time in her history. But the apocalyptic theme seems more of a throwback to the Cold War than a commentary on contemporary fears. So unless anyone wants to convince me otherwise, I’m saying…not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagNo – the theme of post-apocalyptic society is certainly not original, nor is the mystical element of the place of God in a dying society. The language ranges from overly simplistic to poignantly beautiful, but I didn’t find it innovative. Not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagWell…again the quality is variable, but when it’s at its best, the descriptive writing provides some passages of bleak beauty and unforgettable imagery. I think it might take a few months for me to know how this book settles in my head, so I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt meantime, and hesitantly say – achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagOne might want to argue that in some way this book represents the psychological after-effects of 9/11, and in that sense captures the American experience. One might want to…but I don’t. So…not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

I’m not entirely sure yet whether I think this is a great novel, but with only 2 GAN flags (and one of those I’m still hesitant about) I certainly don’t see it as a contender for the status of The or even A Great American Novel. Unfortunately I can’t remember now why I added it to the original list of contenders, but I’d be most interested if anyone could explain why it has been considered in that context?

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

73 thoughts on “GAN Quest: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

      • I’m beginning to look at number of pages where the author is an unknown quantity to me now. Have selected some Last Harvest. Amazons which in theory SHOULD appeal based on specific reviewer says is, but rejected one because of number of pages! Have just finished one Vine, moderately pagey, which should have ticked my boxes as one comparison was the deeply loved GOLDFINCH And the other Girl With A Pearl Earring. Bar set far too high so a competent okay read only was grimly proceeded through with a puckered mouth and disdainful frown before writing the lemon sucking review on Amazon. Fewer pages may have been less lemony


        • Mm – me too, and even if the author *is* known to me. For every hundred authors who think they’re good enough to write 800 pages, there’s only about one who actually is (and your beloved Tartt ain’t one of them!). And I don’t take any book from Vine now that I wouldn’t be waiting to buy – life’s too short and my TBR is too long to obey their petty rules. I can’t really be bothered reviewing anything for them now, TBH – I keep leaving things till they’ve gone past the deadline. I can see I’m going to degenerate to the 20-word say-nothing review soon…maybe we could persuade some authors to write 20-word novels…


          • Funnily enough I’ve most enjoyably read a brilliant 28 page Kindle single which gave me more to usefully be amused by, thoughtfully ponder and write a disgracefully long review about than many much longer books which said nothing useful or memorable. Scheduled for Friday. It may particularly get hit the spot for Jilanne
            I could imagine her cheering the author long and loud.


            • It’s terrible – I’ve lost the knack for short reviews entirely! ‘A short review’ now would probably be 400-500 words. And though I occasionally cut A BIT the text which goes on Amazon, we are probably talking about 50 or so words. And here is this pot often going on endlessly about the kettle of the editor should have been there with a big red pen. Reviewer, red pen thyself!


            • Me too! I can’t imagine how I used to keep them to about 300 words. But they’re definitely too long for Az now – but I’m too lazy to cut them. I take out anything that relates specifically to the blog and then just bung the rest up. Even a simple wee book that’s nothing more than entertainment turns out about 500 words. Partly it’s because they need a bit of ‘what’s it about’, which Az reviews didn’t require because the blurb was there, and paertly it’s because we both bung in quotes quite often (though I don’t usually do that with crime books – just fiction/fact). but mainly it’s to do with natural verbosity, I fear…as this post tends to confirm… 😉


  1. Super interesting! I think I like post-apoctlyptic books, but I’m not sure. It’s tough having a main character who won’t fight! What a bummer. A nuclear winter is implied…that’s kinda cool, I think.

    Innocents Abroad is going to win this hands down!

    I see a lovely ripio coming up. Do you like coke, FEF?


    • D’you know, I think you might well enjoy this one. It might be a bit slow, but there is some action and the man is quietly heroic – he fights when he needs to, but he’s also very brave in the way he protects the boy. And the mystical stuff is very thought-provoking…

      But Innocents Abroad isn’t a novel! So it can’t win! Maybe I should invent a different quest for Greatest American Book (but Gatsby would still win…)

      Of what? IA? We shall see! Yes, tragically I love the stuff – Diet Coke, that is. Do you? Bet you don’t…bet you prefer some awful cherry-flavoured concoction…


      • Ha! You’re trying to give me another one, aren’t you? Dadblameit.

        Oh…consider it one, ’cause I’m sure it can’t all be reality.

        No, the tollbooth thingy. The professor likes coke–sometimes! *laughing* But you’re kinda right…I like Dr. Pepper more. I think it’s cherry. And I bet you hate that, or have never heard of it!


        • After due consideration, I feel I must inform you that yes, I have added this one to your list. And no, you can’t watch the movie instead. However, The Martian is still at the top of the list…

          Well…I’ll see once I read it, but it’ll be a while! The Professor seems determined to drive poor FF over the edge of the TBR cliff!!

          Oh, yes! Should be starting it any time now – hmm! Can’t say I have a good feeling about it, and I think half my followers will walk out if I say anything bad about it – all three of them!

          Yes, I’ve tried it and you’re right – I hate it! At least if we ever come across the last can of it in the world, we won’t fight over it…


          • No! Not fair, dadblameit. It’s too…bleak for me.

            Yes, for sure! I’ll be dead by the time you read it.

            *laughing* Rip it to shreds! Do it. You must. It’s your destiny. I’ll stand by you. I’m trying to decide if I’m in it. I don’t think so.

            No way? *laughs* I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a can, actually. I bet you don’t like tater tots either!


            • Nah! It’d be good for you to be miserable for a bit – it makes the happy books even more fun!

              Haha! That’s a truly horrid thought! But, on the upside, if you were dead, I wouldn’t feel I had to read after all… *gurgles like ZeZ*

              Oh, you’re so wicked – and such a bad influence. I read about a quarter of it last night. *gulp* I may need that promised support…

              *chuckles* Well, I had to google tater tots (you Americans do have a way with words, don,t you?) and sadly I have a horrible feeling I’d probably like them quite a lot. I’m Glaswegian – deep-fried is always going to work for me…


            • That just doesn’t sound right!

              Horrid thought and you’re laughing? Hmm… You’re just about as wicked as he is!

              *laughing lots* Oh, come on! It’s…imaginative. I read that when I was a tater tot.

              Oh I didn’t make the word up. But I think it is a zinger, now that you say it. Now that’s a wonder! Deep-fried. I want a mars bar now.


            • Oh yes – how would we even know we were happy if we’d never been miserable?

              Oh, thank you – what a compliment! OK, I’ll try to read it before you die – how’s that?

              Yes, it’s…imaginative. (51% – when does the good bit start?) I suspect being a tater tot might be essential to true appreciation of it. Can it be that FF is….too old? *shudders* I want a Mars Bar too, now…


  2. FictionFan – Interesting…I must admit I’m not a big fan of post-apocalyptic settings and contexts. But there are some novels with that context that I’ve enjoyed. And I know what you mean about the writing style. Tedium tends to pull me out of a book, too. Still, the basic questions sound interesting here, and Some of what you’ve shared is really very well-written.


    • Nor am I, Margot, and had it not been for this having been mentioned as a possible GAN I doubt I’d ever have read it. However I’m glad I did – there are definitely aspects of it that will stay with me for a while…


  3. I had a similar reaction to yours- somewhere in the middle of reading it, the narrative started to dwell on my mind when I least expected it to, begging me to come back to it. I liked seeing the movie afterwards too – comparing the imagery in my mind and the imagery of the director.


    • I’m glad you said that, Letizia – I was wondering whether to risk the film but so often the movie of the book is dreadful. So, good to know you enjoyed watching it – I may pluck up the courage and give it a go. Certainly the book is a very visual one, I felt.


      • I know what you mean. Movies are so often a let down after the book but, as you point out, the book is quite visual so it was an interesting comparison. It’s an interesting movie (although I had imagined the child as younger in my head).


        • Yes, even from the pictures I thought the boy looked a bit old. He’s ten in the book, but that boy looks maybe thirteen-ish? And his youth was an important feature I thought – he had to not really be thinking like an adult yet…

          But then to make up for that, there’s always Viggo Mortensen… 😉


  4. Some of my all-time favorite novels do this to me. Faulkner’s Absalom!Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. They took over my life. That said, I don’t think this is considered his best novel, is it? Perhaps Blood Meridian or All the Pretty Horses, instead?


    • Yes, it’s one reason I never like to give up on a book too early on unless I absolutely hate it – it can often be around the halfway mark before I really know whether I’m enjoying it or not. Faulkner’s slowly making his way up the list…

      I think you’re right about this not being his best novel, but it’s the one that appears in GAN discussions and lists for some reason that I don’t really understand. Mind you, if you google ‘Is The Road a Great American Novel’ there are about a zillion entries mostly saying much what I said – no, and I don’t know why anyone would think it is – and hardly any saying yes, it is. Odd. I can only think someone influential must have declared it to be one way back when it came out, and people have been arguing about it ever since – maybe.


        • I think that question is really very much open to a) the reader’s pre-existing beliefs and b) how the reader interprets the ending. That was one of the things I thought I hated about it and then discovered I thought was more profound than it seemed at first reading – the ending. It has left me struggling to come up with my own interpretation and puzzling over some fairly deep questions to do so.

          *chuckling* Does that answer your question? 😉


          • Yes, in a way. 😀 I think good literature should be subject to interpretation. It should generate discussion for a book group, rather than be horribly boring when everyone agrees. You’re stuck for the rest of the evening then, eating and drinking and discussing politics (oh woe!).


            • Haha! Yes, indeed! Certainly the books that stick in my mind most are those that required some thought. Straightforward stuff can be more entertaining and easier to read, but once you’ve nodded in agreement at the end, there’s not much else to think about. It’s a fine line though – too ambiguous and it can end up feeling meaningless.


            • I’m replying here since I exceeded your indent level: Yes, and too much navel-gazing just as bad. Maybe instead of the Great American Novel, you should be in search of the “Perfect Novel.” Is there such a thing? 😀


            • Ah, way too easy! The Great Gatsby!

              Hmm…though if we’re not sticking to American, then there’s Dickens to consider…oh, dear! 😉


            • I would agree with you, especially after reading about some of the interaction between Fitzgerald and his editor and how the manuscript evolved. Interesting stuff. And then there’s Dickens, yes. 😀


          • Ditto. My daughter gave me The Hunger Games, first volume and I was fascinated by the story but the whole premise was off-putting. And I’ve been told that it’s gentler than the new series the name of which I can’t recall at the moment.


            • I’ve never been at all tempted to read The Hunger Games – just don’t see the attraction. But then I feel that about almost all fantasy.


      • I’m curious. Now does the NetGalley work? I signed up for it, but have never done anything about it. I signed up for a particular author and had some trouble with getting on board and never did review his book.


  5. Unusually for me, I have seen the film but not read the book, so if I get round to this I will probably start with the pre-conceived ideas I got from the film, which I found interesting enough to have watched once, but not to revisit. As a sci-fi reader, I have read so many post apocalyptic novels that I don’t really expect much in the way of novelty in the conception, so the writing has to be good. Good review – it’s certainly provoking plenty of comment.


    • Yes, I’m glad I hadn’t seen the film first. In fact I knew nothing about the book before I began, so had no preconceptions at all – which is quite rare but also good. I don’t really enjoy post-apocalyptic stories on the whole, but though I’ve tagged this as sci-fi, it’s definitely literary fiction disguised as sci-fi rather than the other way round.

      Thank you. 🙂


  6. This is on my “maybe-one-day” list. It’s never been a priority, but if I’m ever in the right mood I might pick it up. I read Blood Meridian a few years ago but don’t remember much about it (this was before I started blogging) except for the fact that I found the language distracting at times. (Well, that and lots of scalpings.) But some readers seem to really take to McCarthy, so I may give him another try. Have you read anything else by him?

    My mother watched the movie recently; she was moved by it and found it weighty and thought-provoking. I prefer book-then-film, so I can’t vouch for it. 🙂


    • No, I’ve never read anything else by him, although I’ve had All the Pretty Horses on my wishlist for ages. I’m actually keener to read it now than I was before I read The Road, which is a good sign, I suppose, but I was hoping his language tricks were unique to this one. *sighs*

      Yes, I prefer book first too, ever since the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest debacle – I was never able to appreciate the book because I loved the film so much and they were so different. But now that I’ve read The Road, I really think I’d like to see the film…and not just for Viggo! 😉


  7. I really liked this book, in particular the use of language–I felt the decay of grammar and syntax mirrored the decay of civilization, so for me it set a good tone for the book. (My brother then told me not to read any of his other books because apparently it’s an authorial quirk and not a conscious decision for this book, which does take away from its effectiveness if that’s true. Sigh)


    • Yes, I see what you mean – and I agree, particularly in so far as the dialogue went. The simplistic language worked for it, and contrasted with the boy coming out with an occasional jargon-type phrase dating back to pre-apocalypse days… But on the whole I found that aspect of the language annoying and much preferred when he got into the more complex descriptive stuff.

      I think I will read more of his stuff – but from other reviews and people’s comments, I think your brother’s right.


  8. Would any book classify as The Great American Novel? I don’t think so, but great modern American? Great American Post 2000 Novel? This could come close.


    • I doubt if any of them will meet my criteria, but at some point I’ll change those to make it easier! 😉

      Yes, this would come close, but (remembering I haven’t read a lot of American fiction) for me the book that’s closest to the title of GA Post-2000 N is still Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land – the book that started this whole quest…


  9. Well, we are in accordance about much, though I shall wait for the book to settle, at the moment I will make a clear 4 star – and it is the writing style which grated. This made it seem a longer read than it probably was. He has a tendency to overuse repetitions. Not to mention certain slightly archaic words, such as laving, so each time any water scooping actions occur, there it is again and again, and began to grate on my ear. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if he had always , for example, scooped water, splashed water, washed his face, but laved stuck out, wonderfully at first, and then…not. But yes, the subject matter, the relationship, the large, not to mention the small, terrifying concerns, were hooks embedding deep. I wouldn’t have ‘Ganned’ it, either. I think I should stop now and lave my weary eyes, and try to go back to sleep. An unusual for me bout of insomnia , and probably this wasn’t the best book to be reading!


    • It was the ‘and’ word that drove me up the wall, even though I’m guilty of over-using it myself. But from about halfway I began to find the style working better for me, and some of the descriptions were so powerful. I’m glad you enjoyed it and glad that whatever rating you finally go with it’ll be good enough to make the blog – looking forward to your review! I rather loved the ending – beautifully open, ready for the reader to read into it whatever she desired… but definitely not a GAN. Oh, I hope the insomnia passes soon – like you, it’s a rare occurrence with me, but I hate it when it does happen. Currently, I’m nocturnal, which really means I’m napping constantly. Poor Andy I really hoped this might be his year after Djok went out! Oh, well… vamos, Rafa!


      • Yes, I was so sad for Andy. I’m probably shifting to Rafa, though I’d also love Tsonga to take it. And I do love Federer’s grace in playing style, so much. Wawrinka I have slowly warmed towards. However, C’mon Jo – that’ll be a Jo, doing for Konta, and Tsonga!

        I think my can’t sleep was one night – the awfulness of Trump finally there – I had, like many, hoped the stuff that will for sure hit the fan might manage to do so before inauguration. failing that, angry, overweight, choleretic shouty bully men are often Type A and prone to cardiovascular problems…..

        Anyway, a mixture of that, reading The Road, which makes the disaster seem even more close. Not all bad though, also had a spate of constructive new ideas for a workshop I was running the next day, so that kept me buzzing and they were good ideas, and the workshop benefitted . Fortunately the adrenaline rush overtook the exhaustion!


        • I could live with Tsonga winning, but I’ve really never taken to Stan and doubt I ever will. It would be nice to see Roger win again, but that would mean my Rafa would have to lose… Of course, Rafa has to get past Raonic first, which won’t be easy…

          The whole Trump thing is unbelievable – the way he just lies and his hideous followers, who know fine well he’s lying, go along with whatever he says. And the racist and misogynistic language his followers use on social media (even the women!) – scum of the earth, quite frankly. Obviously I don’t mean all the millions who voted for him, but the rabid “Lock her up!” brigade and the KKK boys… We can but hope he’ll become so OTT that he’ll lose the support of the Senate and Congress.

          But I’m glad something good came out of your insomnia anyway… 🙂


          • Now I just can’t warm to Raonic, for no good reason. He’s a perfectly well-behaved person and is charming in defeat, works hard, doesn’t throw hissy’s – I think he just has a slightly unfortunate face. He looks smug, Though he doesn’t behave smug, I read some sports report somewhere referring to his as ‘the golem’ which is kind of unkind, but I know what they mean. Maybe it is the robotic quality, without ‘temperament’ which makes him unappealing to me. You ABSOLUTELY know it matters so much to Andy.

            Well, you are a deal kinder to the monstrous and unfortunate President than I am. I just want him to eat a LOT, an awful lot of deep fried doughnuts, plates fulls of chips, fried in lard, with half a tub of salt thrown over them, all washed down with milkshake after milkshake, with lashings and lashings of sugar. Perhaps his adulating well wishers (and the rest of us) could send him delicious home baked cakes, rich as can be, and irresistible. Eat, piggy, eat, please eat!!!! It could be a quicker solution than impeachment.


            • Yes, there’s something about Raonic even when he’s being interviewed that kinda keeps me at a distance – not sure what. I hoped working with McEnroe might bring him out, but that didn’t last very long.

              Hahaha! You’re becoming quite vicious, m’dear! I’m not sure I’d be willing to give him any of my cake even for nefarious purposes… although perhaps I could BAKE him a cake! That should certainly do the trick…

              Liked by 1 person

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