In his devilish little book called A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (reviewed in these pages in 2006), B.R. Myers devotes an entire chapter to Pulitzer prize winner Cormac McCarthy, calling his prose unspeakable in every sense of the word.
That and similar pronouncements were at the front of my mind as I opened McCarthy's 2006 novel entitled The Road, and the first few pages seemed to validate my reservations, as I immediately encountered incomplete sentences, perplexing punctuation, and obscure metaphors. "OK, just as I thought; I'm not cut out for McCarthy's style."
But the oddest thing happened. The story took over and it was so compelling and horrifying and tender that while the literary affectations still whirled like gnats, they were dismissed with a mental wave of the hand and I was immersed with no hope or desire of rescue. I read it through, cover-to-cover, in as close to non-stop fashion as someone with real-life responsibilities can get away with.
The Road is a travelogue through a post-apocalyptic landscape, recounting the story of a father and young son who inexplicably survived something -- we're never told exactly what -- but are now threatened by the aftermath. McCarthy crafts a tale that engenders dreadful anticipation. His vignettes are pictures of the horrifying lengths people will go to survive, offset against the unyielding and unnaturally optimistic force of love.
I wonder if McCarthy actually read Myers's critique and took some of it to heart. What I didn't see in The Road was bloated prose. If anything, the author forces the reader to look for what's missing in order to complete the picture. Even the repetition of certain scenes (there are only so many ways to describe a gray and dreary landscape, and most of those are no better than what I just wrote) serves the storyline.
Post-apocalyptic stories are common and often take the form of something more accessible to the masses; you just don't think about a Pulitzer Prize winner writing something like Mad Max, The Stand, or A Boy and His Dog. McCarthy has managed to elevate the literary quality of that story while still retaining some of the macabre and nightmarish elements that made those other works popular. If you prefer to consume your horror novel with extended pinkie finger, I unhesitatingly recommend The Road.
Postscript: Let's hope that the movie version of this novel translates to the big screen as well as did No Country for Old Men.