#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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There are, in Cormac McCarthy’s impossibly affecting novels, details that simultaneously open up his dismal universe and draw in the reader. In Blood Meridian, it’s the Apache wearing the wedding dress. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s the bullet hole in the wallet. In No Country for Old Men, the glass of milk, still sweating on the coffee table. In The Road, it’s the can of Coke, pulled from the guts of the vending machine. No, it’s that the soda has somehow stayed carbonated after the cataclysm. No, it’s that the father lets his son drink the whole thing. Surely this is one of the most humane and deeply inhabited moments not just in fiction from this millennium, but in all of literature.

And yet the book is rife with such moments, replete with such deep empathy for the father and son that some of the bleakest passages will turn your stomach as only love can. This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of The Road: what remains, what you remember years after you’ve read the book, is the beauty, the compassion, the relentlessness of possibility that burns on the colorless horizon. You understand—much in the way that you first understand poetry, through feeling and syntax and imagery rather than logic—that no matter how desolate the story, it is made bearable through language. There is, the novel asserts, something like triumph in the very telling of a tale, a commitment to the act of witness, and to receive a story is to exalt the imagination, to participate in the process of faith, to accept deliverance. Why else, then, would the father in the novel—when his son is too scared to sleep, when the noise of the world dying its cold death keeps him awake—comfort the boy with narrative? They’ve been stripped of everything except voice, but even on the darkest path words can retain their meaning, their promise of light that will lead lost travelers home.

Read an excerpt from The Road.
More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)
Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

A Year in Reading: Bret Anthony Johnston


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, both from Random House. Currently, he is the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University and can be reached on the web at www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.I know this is heresy, but I’m going to recommend a book that was published this year. (If it helps, the story itself is centuries old.) Of all the books I’ve read this year, regardless of publication date, genre, or form, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is the best. What’s more, I haven’t even finished it yet.But it’s so, so good. Kind of like a thinking man’s, adults-only, Islamic Harry Potter. (The original Urdu text, born out of oral narratives that had been circulated for hundreds of years, appeared in the late 19th century, but English translations have always been censored.) Amir Hamza was the prophet Muhammad’s uncle and he got into all kinds of cool trouble. Hamza’s soulmate is the daughter of the Persian emperor, but there’s a chasm of conflict keeping them apart – Frodo had it easy – and so the book follows, in utterly readable and downright addictive prose, Hamza’s struggle to return to her. Did I mention that he rides a winged demon-steed? That his posse consists of a wickedly cool wizard (thinking man’s Gandolf) and a funny trickster partner (thinking man’s Sancho Panza)? That he has to fight an honest-to-God demon? That his sons turn against him? That, in service of getting back to his one true love, he seduces a good many women? It’s a terrifically good and captivating story, bawdy and violent and occasionally poignant and often funny, and it reads just as well as a long odyssey as it does individual short stories. Speaking of, I need to get back to the book: We’re just about to rout Muhlil Sagsar and Malik Ajrook!More from A Year in Reading 2007