Book Review: The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy

Literature

The Road Cover

The Road (2006), in many ways, bucks many expectations one might have about post-apocalyptic literature. I think that can be considered true of the rest of author Cormac McCarthy’s works. He is a writer who firmly grounds most of his works in genre fiction. Blood Meridian (1985) is a western novel. Child of God (1973) is a serial killer novel. Suttree (1979) is a southern gothic novel. But all of his works established in firm genre boundaries continue to explode notions readers may have of those genres. Blood Meridian is a western novel, but in many ways is the antithesis of the classic western as seen in novels like Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902). It is unrelentingly violent and barbaric, and there is no notion of a battle of good and evil.

The Road also explodes the notion of post-apocalyptic literature. Whereas novels such as The Stand (1978) by Stephen King and The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham focus on what comes after the fall of society, and how one could possibly reconstitute a society, McCarthy’s work has no interest in that at all. At its core, The Road is simply about the relationships between fathers and sons, and the ways sons idolize their fathers into being heroes they may not be, and how those notions of heroism conflict with reality. In fact, this central theme doesn’t really need the post-apocalyptic genre for it to be a great novel, but the added sense of desolation, horror and the will to survive accelerate these notions and put them in stark contrast with the unrelenting darkness that the two main characters are surrounded by. It is without a doubt this element of the novel that I most enjoyed, and that I got the most emotional response to. I had a deep, human, guttural response to this work that I simply never had with Blood Meridian.

Cormac McCarthy

Author Cormac McCarthy’s novel explodes many of the notions readers may have about post-apocalyptic fiction.

As for the post-apocalyptic setting, McCarthy conjures up a world entirely his own. It is a world in which nothing grows because nothing can take root in the soil. It is a world in which what is left of humankind struggles to survive on what has been left behind. It is a world in which humankind has turned on itself, and use each other for food. It is unrelentingly dark and a world full of horror and despair. There are moments in the novel which are genuinely sickening and terrifying. The most memorable and shocking of moments for me had to be when the man and the boy come across a seemingly empty house. They find several mattresses and a pile of clothes within. Then they find a basement filled with a dozen starving naked men, women and children. And one man with a leg missing. As the owners of the house arrive, the readers cannot help but connect the dots. The basement is a pantry, and these people are the livestock on which the homeowners are living on. McCarthy never points this out deliberately. He leaves the image there to gather in the mind of the reader, and when the pieces finally click the horror is all the more terrifying.

The Road is without a doubt one of the most engrossing, absorbing, and emotional post-apocalyptic novels you’ll read. Whilst I hesitate to consider The Road as a literary classic like McCarthy’s own Blood Meridian, I will consent that an argument can be made. Ultimately, only time will tell whether The Road has the staying power that Blood Meridian does. It is very much a novel of the times. In a world in which 9/11 and the Paris Attacks can happen, it is very easy to slip into the worn and wearied shoes of the man and the boy and live in a state of constant fear. However, whilst the novel is depressing and bleak, these characters “carry the fire.” And whilst society probably won’t be able to reconstitute itself within the realms of the novel, it is some small comfort to know that human kindness and compassion can survive the most apocalyptic of environments.

9/10

Book Review: Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain

Literature

Double Indemnity Cover

I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.

When I heard Fred MacMurray say that line at the beginning of Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), I didn’t realise that it was one of the few instances in the film where quotes were taken directly from the pages of James M. Cain’s novel. For me, these two sentences really sum up everything about film noir, and go someway towards a definition of the genre. That film was my entrance into the world of film noir, so it was only fitting that the novel upon which it was based should be my entrance into literary noir.

Double Indemnity (1943) concerns itself with a plot by insurance investigator Walter Huff and the femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger to kill her husband for the insurance pay out, which will be even more if they manage to make it look like an accidental death on a train. These deaths are so rare that Phyllis would get a double indemnity payment. As Walter falls under Phyllis’ command due to lust, things get more and more dangerous, for all three involved.

Double Indemnity Poster

The film version of Double Indemnity is one of my all-time favourite Hollywood classics, so I wanted to read the original novel.

The first impression I had when reading the book was just how closely Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler had adapted it into screenplay – that was, until Walter and Phyllis kill her husband. After this point, the novel veered off the expected course for me, and that was wonderful. Having seen the film many times I didn’t think I’d see anything new in the novel, but to have a completely different ending was a wonderful surprise. Those who worry about that, having seen and loved the film, shouldn’t, as the ending is still very much in the spirit of the characters and is a logical conclusion, as is the film’s ending.

James M. Cain’s story is so well plotted and crafted it’s hard to fault it. He is truly a master craftsman – every event in the story feels like a logical outcome of the character’s innate desires and lusts. His characters are brilliantly drawn and complex. Walter and Phyllis are wonderfully written, and you really feel the sense of doom that falls over their relationship. While Keyes, who was played by Edward G. Robinson in the film, has a more minimal role in the book, Lola, Phyllis’s step-daughter, has a much more expanded role. Her affair with Walter is captivating and heart-breaking. Cain’s spare, pulpy prose is the essence of noir, and it drives the novel and it’s characters foreward with drama and strength. A novel that would be 300-400 pages in the hands of any other writer is stripped down to its essence by Cain. The writing is utterly captivating.

James M. Cain is considered one of the founders of crime noir fiction.

James M. Cain is considered one of the founders of crime noir fiction.

After reading Cain’s novel I am very much interested in reading both more of Cain’s oeuvre and literary noir in general. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Mildred Pierce (1941) are the next books I wish to read by Cain. The Philip Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler, particularly The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1953), as well as the novel Galveston (2010) by Nic Pizzolatto are also on the list.

I cannot recommend the novel enough, both for those who love the film and for those who like crime fiction / noir in general. It’s a nasty story about nasty people, and in that respect ticks all the boxes you could expect from a novel of it’s kind. Recommended.

9/10

Book Review: The Stand – The Complete & Uncut Edition (1990) by Stephen King

Literature

The Stand Cover

I have a confession to make: I don’t really know how to start writing a review about The Stand. Part of this is because it’s difficult to write a review and contribute something to a book that has become so monumentally huge. Another part is that it’s just so long and there is so much to talk about here.

Stephen King’s epic post-apocalyptic narrative is, without a doubt, great literature. It is not popular fiction, as perhaps most of his books are. With this one he cracks his way into the shared light of authors such as Charles Dickens, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

A plague, colloquially known as Captain Trips, ravages the world. After the veil of civilisation has fallen the story follows numerous different characters as they all begin having shared dreams, or more appropriately, visions. Visions of two people – Mother Abigail, a kindly ancient old black woman, and Randall Flagg, evil incarnate. They are summoning their people for a final reckoning. A vast cast of characters will have to find their inner courage and make a final stand in the battle of good and evil.

Essentially, Stephen King’s narrative is his version of The Lord of the Rings. Some may dispute that and claim The Dark Tower is his version, but I would say that The Dark Tower is his magnum opus, an epic fantasy series. I believe The Stand has more in common with The Lord of the Rings than The Dark Tower has. In it’s most basic form, it is about normal, everyday people, who are pushed into extraordinary circumstances and must find their inner strength and goodness to overcome the overwhelming evil they are faced with. Stephen King says as much himself:

… instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg. The land of Mordor (‘where the shadows lie,’ according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas[1].

One of the billions of victims claimed by Captain Trips.

One of the billions of victims claimed by Captain Trips, as illustrated by Bernie Wrightson.

What Stephen King brings to this epic narrative of good versus evil, though, is his brilliant writing of characters and psychology. The narrative is actually very simple – the remnants of society form two groups of people, and they must battle for the fate of mankind. It’s a much simpler story in many aspects than Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings. What makes the page-count so high then is the amount of time that King devotes to exploring all of his many characters. He builds characters you will never, ever forget – Stu Redman, quite, wise, and heroic; Larry Underwood, a man in eternal combat with his own inner darkness; Frannie Goldsmith, loving and devoted; Nick Andros, mute and deaf but ever resourceful and caring; Harold Lauder, jealous and hateful; Tom Cullen, kind and brave. All of these characters, and others including the Trashcan Man and Lloyd Henreid, explode on the page. None of the plot feels forced or controlling. Everything that happens feels like a natural outcome of each character’s unique personalities. All must ultimately reckon with Randall Flagg, which brings me to perhaps the best part of the novel.

Randall Flagg is Stephen King’s archetypal portrayal of evil. He appears in many other novels, such as The Eyes of the Dragon, and he is a major character in his fantasy epic The Dark Tower. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest literary villains I’ve read. He is ephemeral, yet powerful. You’ll get the chills whenever he appears on the page, or whenever he uses his magic to torture and maim. He’s not really in the novel that much – he appears mostly in dreams and nightmares to the main characters, and occasionally is in contact with the rest of the citizens of Las Vegas. It’s only really the last third of the book in which he truly appears, and the build up to his character pays off. It’s truly stunning to witness such an amazingly written character appear.

Bernie Wrightson illustrates the scene where the Kid is put to death by Randall Flagg via a pack of wolves.

Bernie Wrightson illustrates the scene where the Kid is put to death by Randall Flagg via a pack of wolves.

Another great aspect of the novel is seeing how both civilisations reform. Witnessing the rise of the Boulder Free Zone is stunning stuff – you’ll share in the character’s jubilation as they heal from the nightmare they’ve all been faced with. Moments such as when, at the first political meeting of the Free Zone, everyone stands and sings the national anthem (well, apart from Nick Andros) will fill you with heartache and make you tremble. Others such as when they finally manage to get the electrics working again fill you with joy. It’s one of the novel’s most interesting and well-thought out aspects.

I cannot recommend this book enough – it is a masterpiece of fantasy and science fiction writing, and truly King’s best work. In many ways it could be considered a definitive American narrative, in the way Lord of the Rings could be considered a definitive British one. Search it out at all costs. You will fall in love with the characters and be utterly thrilled, horrified, and compelled by this narrative. Read it at all costs.

10/10


[1] King, Stephen. “The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition: The Inspiration.” StephenKing.com. Stephen King. Web. 4 Sep. 2015.