- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

One woman talks of “the book’s grimness.” Another goes further, declaring, “This is perhaps the most grim book I’ve ever read.”

Another reader sums up the setting as “a colorless, hopeless post-apocalyptic world.”

Such comments perhaps aren’t surprising about a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize. But have they ever before been uttered of an Oprah’s Book Club selection?

Oprah Winfrey chose Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel “The Road” as the latest book to receive her influential imprimatur. “Oh, my goodness,” Dianne Luce, president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, told the Chicago Tribune on hearing the news. “Those poor women don’t know what they’re getting into.”

Those women — Oprah fans do tend to be female — were surprised by the selection. But their reaction to the book might surprise people like Miss Luce. Perhaps Miss Winfrey has helped them to find hope in even the most unlikely of places.

Melissa Van Diepen, chief librarian at the Modesto Bee, thought “The Road” an unlikely selection. She read a few Oprah selections when the talk show host first started the club. “Those books, at least the ones I read, tended to be about women trying to survive dysfunctional families or difficult situations,” she reports. “The Road,” she says, “doesn’t seem like a typical club pick because it is so grim. This is perhaps the most grim book I’ve ever read.”

Even Miss Winfrey herself acknowledged the choice was a departure for her decade-old book club. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever chosen as a book club selection before because it’s post-apocalyptic,” she said in announcing the selection.

It’s not simply that it takes place in a world ravaged by some unnamed disaster — perhaps nuclear war, perhaps environmental catastrophe, perhaps a meteorite. It’s how human beings deal with it. Food stocks are all but depleted, and many of the few human survivors have turned to cannibalism; America is now “populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes.”

Mr. McCarthy’s stark prose details the most horrifying images: an infant, likely just born, spit-roasted on a fire; a group of young boys captured as catamites. The main characters traveling the road of the title — toward what, they’re not sure — are a man and his son. The mother has already killed herself, choosing suicide over the likelihood of being raped and eaten. The father has a gun, which he intends to use on his son if the pair are captured. “What if it doesnt fire?” he wonders. “Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock?” (Like Mr. McCarthy’s other books, this one has no quotation marks and few apostrophes.)

Ms. Van Diepen reports that “I haven’t succeeded in convincing my friends to read it” because “the subject matter is very dark.” They’ve read other Oprah selections in the past.

Of her own experience, she says, “I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the book, because that feels weird to say because the book is dark.” But she calls it “a great piece of fiction.”

“The Road” seems to suggest to readers a dilemma that the book club members have never considered before: whether suicide — or even the mercy killing of a healthy young child — may sometimes be the best — the only — choice. “I found myself struggling a lot with the question of whether or not the fight to survive was worth it or if it was better for the child to leave the world like his mother did,” Ms. Van Diepen says.

Donna Spencer, who lives in Tracy, Calif., near the Bay Area, is a longtime Oprah’s Book Club fan. She’s read many Oprah picks, from the first (Jacquelyn Mitchard’s “The Deep End of the Ocean”) to this latest. “Oprah really has the pulse on good books, if you ask me,” she says.

Some readers — like myself — finished “The Road” thinking about how horrible human beings can be. “It addresses the question of whether humans are essentially good or bad,” Ms. Spencer says.

Mr. McCarthy himself addressed such a question directly in a 1992 interview in the New York Times. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a dangerous idea,” he said.

But Ms. Spencer — and many other readers — say the book made them appreciate their lives even more. “I feel very grateful for my warm bed and my pantry that is full of food and my ability to shower and wash my clothes,” she says.

Susanne Malm, a retired international flight attendant and freelance writer in Lake Tapps, Wash., is a contributor to the book discussion on Oprah.com and has read several Oprah picks. “We are given both hope and hopelessness” in “The Road,” she argues. “The book’s grimness was tempered by an incredible sense of hope and love between the father and the son.”

Ms. Malm’s insight might sum up the appeal of the book to Oprah’s readers: Almost all cite the immutable bond between father and son as the most moving part of the book.

Ms. Spencer says “The Road” was more “cerebral” than the other Oprah picks she’s read; she kept her dictionary close by while reading it. She plans to read others of the author’s 10 novels. So does Ms. Malm, and the contributors to a Yahoo! Book Group she moderated plan to as well.

Though Mr. McCarthy’s books are almost relentlessly grim, he’s gained a new audience thanks to the infallible Oprah touch. In 1992, just before the publication of his breakthrough novel “All the Pretty Horses” (made into a Matt Damon film), the New York Times reported that none of his novels had sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover. Vintage, the paperback publisher of “The Road,” has reportedly ordered a printing of close to 1 million. The notoriously reclusive author will finally sit down for his first television interview — on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” of course.

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