I came to Cormac McCarthy so late that the first book of his I tried to read was "No Country for Old Men". It was so silly I had to put it down. Forget the very satisfying violence and the plot about stolen money. Consider the Texas sheriff who meditates on Big Topics --- chance, destiny, western civ. You think that's a plausible character? I don't. Except in books. Bad books.
I wasn't the only one who saw the flaws. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote, "'No Country for Old Men' would easily translate to the big screen so long as Bell's tedious, long-winded monologues were left on the cutting room floor --- a move that would also have made this a considerably more persuasive novel." As you know, the Coen Brothers did not take this advice. The bullshit in the book became the Deep Thoughts of the movie, which I found laughable in the extreme.
But what do I know? McCarthy's book was Oprahfied. And the movie won four Oscars.
But how can this be? Forget the metaphors; this time, consider just the plot. And that is a complete bummer. Indeed, "The Road" is the worst story ever told. The world has more or less ended --- we never learn how --- and the people left on this vast ruin of a planet are in no condition to start fresh. Not, anyway, the Father and the Boy who are the main characters of the book. (After the apocalypse, Mom killed herself.)
Here's the plot: Father and Son walk a long way to the coast. But they're not really survivors -- they're the walking dead. "There is no later," the book reports. "This is later."
The route is littered with debris --- the detritus of civilization, bodies that lay where they fell, and the occasional storehouse of food. There are other people, though they've devolved --- the Father and Boy mostly encounter cannibals and thieves. (Once they find a bunch of emaciated prisoners in a basement. Their destiny: food.)
You ask, "Why read this book? Why see this movie?"
Good question. And now I have one for you: Are you a parent? Because the way into this book and movie is through your feeling for your kids --- for how you'd feel if it were you and them against whatever remains of the world.
Recently, McCarthy was interviewed. This was among the questions: "What kind of reactions have you gotten to 'The Road' from fathers?" His response:
I have the same letter from about six different people. One from Australia, one from Germany, one from England, but they all said the same thing. They said, "I started reading your book after dinner and I finished it at 3:45 the next morning, and I got up and went upstairs and I got my kids up and I just sat there in the bed and held them."
Because it's like that. Blood against the world. The thing you fear most.
The Father has a gun with two bullets. He tells his boy: "I will kill anyone who touches you. Because that's my job."
If you are a parent and you are honest, you know you have thought that.
The power of the book --- and the heartache so deep I can hardly bring myself to write about it --- is the second use of those two bullets. And again, you know what I mean. The Father will not allow any violation of the boy. But if savagery --- abuse, death, cannibalization --- is inevitable, the Father believes his responsibility is to kill his son. And then, of course, himself --- although the Father is, essentially, already dead, pushing forward each day only because he senses there might be life for the Boy at the coast.
There's a remarkable ending. I won't spoil it. There's terrific writing. I won't bruise it by quoting out of context. And then there's what you bring to the book and to the movie --- and what, afterward, you take away.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]