Hope springs eternal

The Road

April has been a red-letter month for Cormac McCarthy. His most recent novel, The Road, was chosen to be featured on Oprah Winfrey’s book club. And then, surprisingly, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Good for McCarthy. I’m sure the $10,000 prize will come in handy. I don’t believe any American author deserves more recognition than Cormac McCarthy. He’s been my literary hero since I first read All the Pretty Horses back in 1993.

But, I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think he should have received the Pulitzer for The Road. I found it a boring, predictable science-fiction story. I also found it to be a beautifully lyrical, stripped-down version of McCarthy’s writing. I guess you can see why I’m conflicted. I don’t have the chops to tie the guy’s shoes, and here I am, taking away his Pulitzer.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic story about a father and son who are heading south to the ocean, trying to avoid cannibals, thieves and starvation. The reader doesn’t know the exact disaster that hit the world, but, since this is ground frequented by science-fiction writers, most readers probably assume it was a nuclear holocaust. There was also what might have been a deadly pandemic—or something; maybe radiation poisoning could have similar symptoms. Or maybe the nuclear holocaust was touched off by countries struggling for global superiority in the wake of a pandemic.

The book was released during the ongoing crisis with the Middle East and while worldwide reports of the avian flu were terrifying the populace, so you’ll forgive my uncertainty. Plainly, though, McCarthy intended his audience to imbue the novel with their own fears for the future.

The son is near the end of his strength. The father carries the killing disease and a gun with two bullets. The fundamental conflict of the story is whether the father loves his son enough to kill him before he kills himself.

This book works on so many levels—clarity and beauty of writing, theme, mood, setting, dialogue—that maybe it’s unrealistic of me to complain. But its weaknesses are related to its strengths. For example, I found myself identifying with the father—the boy is about the same age as my own—who struggles to provide a life for his boy in the face of some really horrendous shit. On the other hand, McCarthy’s emotional puppetmastering made me feel manipulated. There were two places in the book when all hope was lost, and the father and son lucked into caches of incredible bounty allowing them (mostly) to restore their vigor for further tortures. Unfortunately, each time, I predicted the outcome to the person who was laying next to me.

Now that I’ve mentioned all that, let me add one more thing: While I don’t think McCarthy earned the Pulitzer for The Road, I don’t know which other author deserved the honor.

I’ve said this before, but let me say it again: Cormac McCarthy’s best books were Blood Meridian and Suttree. To my mind, they are two of the best novels ever written in the United States. If Oprah and the Pulitzer Prize committee bring readers to McCarthy’s great works, it’s OK by me. Still, it’s too bad there isn’t an American prize as distinguished as the Pulitzer offering a lifetime achievement award because that’s what McCarthy deserves—not an accolade to his past or (cross my fingers) future greatness. I guess he’ll just have to go for the Nobel.