The Road

I just finished Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road.


I’ve never been this moved by a written work.  It’s brilliant.

This isn’t a review.  This isn’t a critique.  I’m not a critic; I’m just compelled to write about how it made me feel.

I just finished it last night.  I started it two days ago.  It’s a quick read but it’s a tough read as well.  While not reading it I found myself at work thinking about it; wondering what will happen to these two nameless people, genuinely concerned for their welfare.

The Road takes place on Earth in some not so distant future.  A cataclysmic event has occurred that has left presumably the entire United States-most likely the entire planet-burned and destroyed.  It’s bitterly cold; no sunlight penetrates the thick, black cloud cover.  There are almost no people left alive.  Virtually everything has been plundered.  There is almost no food, there are no living plants, and there are virtually no animals left alive.  The people who are left are living on borrowed time.   They’re the walking dead.  They’re freezing and they’re starving.  Some have banded together in gangs and have resorted to slavery and cannibalism.

There is a man in this story; a father.  He has a son.  They have no names.  The boy was born just after disaster struck.  We don’t know what that disaster actually was; we just see the aftermath.  The man had a wife but after a number of years surviving the hellish conditions and the gangs of raping cannibals she gives up.  Nothing the mans says can change her mind.  She believes the right thing for them all to do is to end their own lives.  She convincingly argues the case.  She says she’d take the boy’s life as well if it wasn’t for the father.  She walks out one night and kills herself; leaving the boy and the man behind.  The father can’t give up; he’ll find a way…somehow.

They head south for the coast.  It might be warmer there.  Probably not, but it’s something to hope for.  As they walk along the road we see the destruction, the desolation, the hellish world in which they live.  They struggle to stay warm and to find food.  They live in constant fear of what the father calls “the bad guys”.  These are the cannibals who would “eat your child in front of you”.  They talk very little; there’s just so much effort placed in simply surviving.  They don’t need to talk; they’re bound by a love that transcends words.

The father is sick.  He knows he’s dying.  He has to hang on, to give his son hope.  To protect him.  And possibly to put him out of his misery if there truly is no hope.  It’s his duty.

They continue walking, beating a path to the coast.  Along the way they run into some danger as well as some good fortune.  They finally reach the coast but it’s not any better there.  The journey ends for the father but there is a slight hint of hope for the son, and that’s what kept them going all along.

I was both incredibly inspired by this story and yet emotionally destroyed by it.  I’ve never read anything like it.  McCarthy is able to paint the most vivid landscape I’ve ever not seen with only a few, well-crafted sentences.  The desolation of the world, the direness of their situation, I was there.  I swear I was right there with them.  I’ve never read a book that created mood like this.  I worried the whole time for their safety and these aren’t even real people.

Or are they?  They don’t have names.  They’re symbolic.  They’re me and my son.  They’re you and your daughter.  We’re all real.  That’s what’s so emotionally overpowering about this; we can relate, especially as parents.  The relationship that McCarthy builds between these two people, this everyman father and son, is so deep and so powerful.  The father’s love for this son is his only reason for clinging to life.  The wife told the father once that the only thing between you and death is that boy.  It’s keen observation that proves his conviction.

The relationship.  It’s the relationship every father wants with this son.  It’s also the relationship no father ever wants to have with his son.  It’s conflicting and confusing, while making perfect sense all the while.  They spend all their time together but they spend virtually all of it just surviving.   But that they rely upon each other-almost equally-for survival means that they form a bond like no other.

The little things McCarthy does to humanize the father and son; that particularly impressed me.  They’re carrying their things in an old shopping cart.  In that cart the boy has toys.  Toys in all the wasteland; he’s still a child despite it all.  The boy drawing fangs on the facemask he must wear to filter out the ash in the air.  The boy calling his father “papa”. He’s scared all the time.

All good fathers want to teach and protect their children.  It’s a tough enough job to do as it is in the paradise I live in, much less in those horrid conditions.  One of the dilemmas here is whether or not it’s right to allow the child to suffer so.  He’s starving-they both are-and there’s little hope, but the father can’t give up.  He can’t just kill his own son, despite the humanity such a brutal act might bring.  So he keeps going, providing as much hope and protection as he can.  He does his job.  He even kills others to protect his son.  Fatherhood is both a duty and a privilege and this story captures that.

The real world is full of gray area.  Almost nothing is black and white, right or wrong.  The father tries to simplify the world for his son; he breaks people into “good guys” and “bad guys”.  The bad guys are thieves, rapists, cannibals.  The father and the son are good guys.  He says that he and the boy “carry the fire inside”.  The gray area of the world does creep in though; making it more difficult for the father to talk in absolutes.  The boy, however, is starting to realize this.   He’s becoming wiser.

The end of the book was heart-wrenching for me.  I had trouble reading through the tears in my eyes.  It took an hour for me to be able to talk about it.  At the end of the book there is hope, however slim, and it makes everything worthwhile.

There are many unanswered questions in the book.  Many things are sufficiently vague.  What caused the destruction?  We don’t know.  Nukes, a meteor like the one that killed the dinosaurs?  A comet? It doesn’t matter; the aftermath is all that matters.  There’s a bit of God-talk but it’s not propaganda.  The father both curses and praises God; not unlike many people.  Religious people will see probably see religious undertones.  They might be there but they’re not overpowering or off-putting.  Optimists will see likely see hope, pessimists will likely not.  Pragmatists like the mother will ask “what’s the point?  Why continue without hope?”.  Others, like me, will deny all pragmatism and will want to fight to the end, just for the sake of not giving up.  If the end comes then so be it, but we fought it off for as long as possible.  They had the fire inside and they never gave up.  I think the “fire inside” was the will to live.

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon has been, up to now, my favorite post-apocalyptic novel.  No detriment to McCammon’s work; it’s fantastic.  It’s well-written, engaging, creative, and thought-provoking.  The Road, however, may very well be my favorite now.  It just spoke to me on every level.  It hit all the right buttons, never missing its mark.  It’s an important book but at the same time a book I think I could only read once.  I know I’ll never forget it.

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