Book review: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

The purpose of a story is to be an axe that breaks up the ice within us

-Franz Kafka

I have a hard time reading fiction because often writers try way too hard to make their fiction seem real, or love their words so much they get in the way of telling the story.

I’m more of a Hemingway fan (particularly Old Man and The Sea) than, say, Updike.  I prefer Beckett to Neil Simon. I find empowerment in dark tales, because when things are really dark, it’s easier to appreciate the little blessings of light in the world. The Seventh Seal is one of my favorite movies and it’s about the plague.

And when it comes to stories I’m with Kafka. Real literature shakes me up. And although sometimes I read to be entertained, often I want an experience that will make me see the world differently when I finish, and change something in me that can not be undone.

The Road would make Kafka proud. It shook me up more than any book I’ve read this decade.

The story (A spoiler free summary): At its heart, The Road is a simple story told well. It’s about a father and son who are trying to survive in tough times, possibly the end of the world. The book never explains what happened. it could be a nuclear war, an asteroid, an act of god (if there is one in the world of the book), its unclear and this is for the better. If you were starving, struggling to find food and safety, you’d think little about history or politics too. And that’s why the book works so well. In a sense we all believe we have important things to worry about or fear today, but that sense has been so far removed from real survival we understand much less of what it is to be alive.

In all survival stories I’ve read, and I’ve read many, from Shackleton’s Endurance, to McCandless in Into The Wild, the heroes are in exceptional circumstances that are much more dangerous than the rest of the world. In The Road, it’s the opposite, the danger has come to everyone. There is no safety, and this context changes everything. The father and son leave their home in search of survival because they know their chance for survival if they stay is zero. How long would I stay and wait? How would I decide when to take to the Road and bet there is something better elsewhere?

These are not adventurers. These are people just trying to live, just like us.The power of The Road is how, through the telling of a simple and captivating story (I read it in two sittings), I couldn’t help but ask myself deep questions about my identity. How unbearable would life have to be before I killed myself? Or my child? And by contrast, how far from that unbearable line of thinking has my entire life, and the life of everyone I’ve ever known, been? And why do we seem not to notice the wonder and good fortune of this gap?

The questions: Do I believe people are inherently good or bad, and how much of my own well being would I ever, or have I ever, put at stake in faith of that belief? What can I know about my beliefs if they have never been tested? And perhaps most of all, if I were stripped away from all of the distracting trappings of modern life, the gadgets, the entertainments, what would I have left? And if I don’t have much left, how do I feel about that? The list of things I felt are too long too list here.McCarthy achieves all this with subtlety and craft. Beyond the philosophical introspections the book provoked in me, it’s a surprising, horrific, surprising, dramatic and riveting tale. It compels you to keep reading which is the highest praise I can offer any book of any kind.

He writes simply and well and lets the narrative and situations lead you to your own conclusions, which is what the masters of writing throughout history have always done.Thanks to Bryan Zug (@BryanZug) for recommending the book to me: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

22 Responses to “Book review: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy”

  1. Thanh Lu

    Hemmingway? Really? He’s so…unoriginal. He’s actually my least favorite Author. :) If you like dark tales, try Barbara Kingsolver’s The Posionwood Bible. Fantastict book. And of course, 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  2. Scott Berkun

    Hemmingway makes for a good reference for not flowery writing, that’s more what I meant – While I’m not a huge fan of his, Old Man and The Sea is one of my favorite books of all time.

  3. Danjit

    I’d been looking for a decent fiction book to read and based on the strength of your review I think I’ve found one.

    Have you seen/Do you intend to see the film? Do you think the film can have the same impact that the book has had or do the philosophical questions/ideas become inevitably more shallow once Hollywood has worked it’s ‘magic’?

  4. Scott Berkun

    Danjit: I did see the film after I read the book. I thought the movie was excellent and faithful to the book.

    The movie was actually more disturbing – I had trouble sleeping for a few nights after watching the film.

    I don’t know if having read the book first amplified how the film effected me, but assuming it didn’t the movie was more powerful visually, as movies often are.

    I think the imagination of events you create in your mind while reading are personal and potent in a way film can never be. Film is specific. Film is literal in it’s way. Whereas the images in your mind are more fluid and etherial and your sense them is just a different kind of thing.

    Also reading the book will be a 4-8 hour experience, divided up in time to digest, think, consider, feel, discuss… which is different than the shorter and more intense experience of a movie.

    I’m a fan of both. I don’t think you can go wrong in this case. I know @bryanzug saw the film first, and then read the book, so perhaps I can drag him here to comment.

  5. Thanh Lu

    Ok…in that case, we must get you a new set of library books. :) jk

  6. Sajee

    A book as disturbing as it was good, that I dreaded turning certain pages for fear of what would befall the Man and Boy. At times, this book filled me with dread like no horror movie can ever hope to do. I didn’t/couldn’t consume this book quickly, like No Country for Old Men. It would’ve been too traumatic.

    As a father, I often questioned what I would do if I were in similar circumstances as The Man. At times, I didn’t like my answers.

    My only regret was that I didn’t read the book sooner. Quite a ride.

  7. Peter Tate

    I just finnished the book on a flight home and saw your post a minute ago. I started the book this morning after reading the newspaper stories about the horrors that are happening in Haiti. That makes an altogether disturbing day of reading for me. I’m thankful to be alive and comfortable, and I’m going to go upstairs and give me sleeping son a hug.

  8. Danjit

    Right, book ordered. Once read I’ll take a look at the film. I don’t want the impact of the book & my own imagination to be over shadowed by film.

  9. Sérgio Estêvão

    The Road as also one of my favorites books from 2009, there’s already a movie about it let’s see if it can keep up to the book.

    In the same mood did you already read Blindness? from Jose Samarago, if not you should give it a try.

  10. Esteban

    Hey Scott!
    The book sounds really interesting, I’ll see if I can get a copy after I finish my current pile of books to read (that includes “Confessions…” :-) ).
    The link to the book at the end of the post is lacking the initial “h” (it’s currently “ttp://…”), though.

  11. Colin

    I like your point that we have become so consumed with our own definition of survival that we’ve forgotten what the actually living means. As a freelance web developer turned farmer, I see first hand, every day, the extent to which a pay check and consumer goods is at odds with true necessity. It’s one thing to successfully cook a delicious thanksgiving turkey, and another to see a bird walking around and know that slitting it’s throat is the only path to that delicious meal.

    I am going to look for The Road at the library tomorrow!

    For ice-breaking effect, I would also recommend Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If you haven’t already read it (I know, it’s almost its own clich

  12. Scott Berkun


    Thanks for the comment – web dev to farmer? Wow. You should be writing a blog or something.

    > Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

    I read this as a freshman in college. Amazing how despite it’s complexity and length, it was so hard to stop reading. Definitely made me ask questions I haven’t stopped asking.

  13. Mary

    The Road was too bleak for me. After I read it, a feeling of hopelessness washed over me. How do you know what your reaction would be in a situation like that? Would you be running for your life or barbecuing a small child? Does the boy in the book get a chance to grow up or will he be eaten? Sorry, there are enough problems in my real world.

  14. Literary Ktty

    I’m just about to read this book and you make it sound just as I hope it will be! I think the film looks great and I wanted to read the book before I see it. After all, I’ve never seen a film surpass its book.

  15. Charles Sipe

    I read this book after a Tweet that led me to this blog post. It was an incredible book that I will never forget. It makes you appreciate life. The performance by Tom Stechschulte who did the audiobook was incredible as well.

  16. Literary Kitty

    I loved this book too. So simple but so powerful! I think schoolchildren will be reading this book one day for class.

    1. Stacey

      I have to laugh so hard at this, not to be cruel, but because it is so true. Yes, this blog is three years old, but I’ve been reading all over about this book, and felt the need to post, even if no one watches here anymore, just to vent myself a bit. I actually did read this book for school with two friends of mine, and it was chosen from a select group of books. I was first intrigued by the brief idea of cannibalism in it, but after reading it I realized it was much more than that, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and all the comments because after reading the book, I was able to follow along and agree with most everything that was said. Never in my life, so far, have I seen a film surpass the book, either, maaaaaaaybe not even quite rival its book, however, I have high hopes for this one as being great and from these comments, think it will be. :)

      Phew, venting done. Or at least for now. :P

  17. Michael

    This book continues to have a deep affect on me, and the seemingly endless symbolism is one aspect of the story that keeps me up at night. Thank you for turning me on to this book. I’m referencing your blog as I write my own now!

  18. Jay Zipursky


    I put The Road on my reading list after reading your review ages ago. Just finished it and your review was spot on. Horribly depressing but it touched off so many thoughts that I could not put it down.


    1. Scott

      That’s fantastic – glad to know you enjoyed the book. It’s one of those books I’m planning to read again.



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