Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Knopf; First Printing edition (September 26, 2006)
The Road is a powerful and chilling work of speculative fiction. We follow a man and his young son through a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by some unknown force, trying to survive in a world where nothing grows. As they scavenge for canned food and hidden stockpiles, they must also avoid becoming food themselves. In this frightening possible future, man has turned upon man, and there are highly disturbing scenes and descriptions of cannibalism throughout the book.
Not only must the man and boy survive on little food or fresh water, they must also survive the horrors they are constantly exposed to. Remaining human, retaining kindness and decency in the face of utter destruction and the breakdown of humanity is a difficult and painful undertaking. The man constantly struggles with the decision on whether to keep traveling the road, on whether to keep the two of them living at all. The only thing keeping him moving is the desperate love he has for his son, and the thought that somewhere, somehow, people might still be living human lives, instead of the lives of horrifying savages.
The world McCarthy describes is so very bleak and unforgiving. The two travelers always hang moments away from death and starvation, relying exclusively on luck and cobbled together skills to find the barest food needed to survive and keep walking the road, ever walking the road. The writing style is lyrical yet harshly descriptive. It is very easy to imagine the gray snow falling down, mixed permanently with ash, the fear and terror the man and boy feel as they hide and run from people eaters, the horror as they come upon scenes of grisly feasts.
And yet, there are moments of beauty, as they find a momentary refuge and the man gently bathes his son and cuts his hair. The windfall of an orchard of forgotten apples that taste sweet and savory, the cistern full of clear, cold, delicious water. The sight of the boy throwing himself laughing into the freezing waves of the salty ocean. These scenes serve to highlight the fact that life goes on, love still exists, a parent can still protect and care for his child, even in a world gone mad.
I was slightly bothered by the story of the boy’s mother, but perhaps that was more my projection than anything the author described. I don’t think I could personally do what she did, but I also hope never to be confronted with the choice. I don’t think she made the decision because she was a weak woman, I think she was a weak person. Her female identity had nothing to do with it, nor her identity as a mother. It was just another stark reminder that the world was not right in any way.
The relationship between the man and the boy, the father and the son, was incredibly touching. The man acknowledges that the boy is a better person than he is, but he knows he makes the tough decisions in order to keep the boy alive so that he may go on being a good person. He is at turns exasperated and amused by the boy’s need to be the good guys and his need to help people they meet on the road. He often imagines the boy is a god come down to earth to bring salvation, or perhaps a final end to the world. The play between the two is real and very human, and they stand in contrast to the inhuman people they have to hide from. McCarthy is adept at portraying relationships realistically in an brilliantly imagined future.
There is no clear cut ending to this story. I won’t spoil it, but I will say it’s fitting and believable. The idea that the world may end one day, and people will still go on, isn’t a new one, but the way McCarthy goes about telling his personal vision is a heart-wrenching trip all its own. I can only hope that our world never ends like that, or that I am long gone before it does, as are my children. I highly recommend this book to anyone with the stomach for despair and hope equally mixed.
You can also visit Cormac McCarthy’s website.