At once beautiful and horrific, The Road by Cormac McCarthy will keep you up at night for two reasons. The first is the nightmare world he sketches. The second is the beautiful relationship between the father and son who are almost the sole living people in that world.
Setting aside for a moment the subject matter of the book, I’ll first praise the writing style. Sentences are poem-like in their brevity and punctuation, but it reads like prose. It takes a few pages to settle down into the rhythm, but is undeniably gripping. Each word carries enormous weight. Yet all that white space on the page presents a richly detailed narrative. I’m in awe of the man.
McCarthy has said that he was inspired to write this book by a trip he took years ago to El Paso with his young son. (McCarthy is now nearly 74. His son is 8.) McCarthy is a writer of Westerns and gothic horror (frequently the two combined in one), so it is not difficult to believe that as he looked out of his hotel room over the city of El Paso, with his young son asleep in the nearby bed, he imagined a horrific fate for the city. He says (I’m paraphrasing from the Oprah Winfrey interview he gave a few weeks ago) he wondered what El Paso would look like in 50 or 100 years, and imagined fires on the hills around him. And he thought of the little boy living in that future. He dedicated The Road to the boy.
The narrative follows an unnamed father and son on a harrowing march through a wintry landscape. They are in the American South, but it is a dead world, decimated by some undisclosed manmade catastrophe. There is no food, no plant or animal life (except one briefly glimpsed starving dog), no safe shelter from the cold. There is no sun. The sky is ash, the air is ash, and ash is slowly filling up their lungs.
The boy was born into the burned landscape. His mother, devoid of hope, killed herself a few years later. The father remembers the living world of the past and cannot do the same, though he carries a gun with two bullets at all times – a last resort. They walk, sometimes on the road, sometimes in the gray dead trees next to it, heading towards the coast, hoping it holds something better, warmer. The father is constantly searching for food, for viable water, for (life-saving) shoes, while trying to avoid marauding bands of brutal cannibals who steal and eat, well, whatever flesh they find. He works tirelessly to preserve his son’s life and spirit. Through their conversations we learn of the boy’s pure heart despite the constant moral dilemma of survival in a brutal world; the open and loving relationship between the two; and the messianic faith the father has in his son, in the boy’s ability to survive until the world is green again. He calls it “carrying the fire,” and the boy dutifully repeats the mantra. Every second the two are in imminent danger of death by starvation, thirst, murder, hypothermia. McCarthy has never been hesitant to brutalize his main characters, and the reader has no assurance that these two will make it to the end of the novel.
The end of the novel. How could it possibly end? The world is dead. There is no hope for salvation. The father is coughing up blood, and it seems clear that if he dies the son will not survive. It’s hard to read to the finish. But there is a purpose to this work. It is not a heavy-handed “this is what will happen if the human race keeps on fighting.” It is not simply a love story between father and son. It is not just a testament, to the idiocy of human war and to the strength of the human will to live. It’s something more. I’m still trying to figure it out, but for now I’ll say it is an exploration of a given situation, a series of conditional statements. If the world is burned, if all sources of food and water are gone, if only a handful of people are left, and if a father and son are stranded here, what would happen? I don’t think this is a morality tale. I think it’s a question asked and answered beautifully. McCarthy chose the set of circumstances based on a nightmare vision he had out a hotel room window in El Paso, but I don’t think the circumstances themselves are the point.
I will re-read this novel over and over in my life, I already know. The initial read wasn’t as forceful a blow to my consciousness as certain other novels have been, ones that burst into my brain like flares and die out just as quickly. It’s a more gentle intrusion that’s led to a sustained exploration of ideas. I have to give this 5/5 stars. I really hope you find time to read it yourselves.