The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
8.5/10, a vivid, engaging portrayal of the father-son bond in a post-apocalyptic world
We never find out exactly what happened to the world of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” It involved a lot of fire, destruction, and death, and was worldwide, so we assume it was some kind of war. But we don’t spend a lot of time wondering about it, in contrast to many post-apocalyptic stories that dwell morbidly and obsessively on the way the world ends. To the nameless father in “The Road,” what happened matters less than surviving what is left, and protecting his son from the million dangers in the new world. He doesn’t even think much about the world as it used to be, except to ponder whether his son is better suited for this new world because he doesn’t remember the old.
The world itself is painted in economical imagery, rarely spreading further than the immediate world around the man and boy. This gives a very close, intimate feel to the book, even though the pair trek over tens, if not hundreds, of miles over the course of the story. Most of the story is told from the man’s point of view, as he struggles to bring his son to a safe place that he doesn’t even believe exists. When they reach places that appear to be safe, he worries that they will inevitably attract “bad people,” and they move on. It becomes clear over the course of the book that while he loves his son, he is also using his son as a crutch not to give up. He’s unable to bring his son to any safe place because he doesn’t believe that he himself can ever be safe–if he were, losing the drive to survive would allow the weight of what he’s suffered to crush him. His son asks him at one point: “What’s the bravest thing you ever did?” He replies, “Getting up this morning,” and then instantly regrets saying it.
McCarthy’s language is sparse, using punctuation reluctantly (no quotation marks, and only occasionally does he deign to use an apostrophe, filling his book with “dont” and “shouldnt” and “cant”). I spent more time than I probably should’ve getting used to the language and thinking about how he was writing and why he was writing that way. The lack of quotation marks especially seems to have an interesting effect on the text. I wonder if, by not setting apart what the people are saying, their words blend into the background and description and makes them stand out less from the story.
I liked the book, but I’m not sure what the message is. I think it was more about the father than the father-son bond. He loved his son, but almost more as if the son was a token that kept him alive and part of this world than as a person; when the son, growing up, wants to help, his father has to be sick or dying before he lets him do anything. The son is more trusting, not wanting to hurt people while the father lashes out at anyone he perceives as a threat. They are looking for the “good people,” but the son worries that they are turning into bad people themselves–skulking, stealing, killing. There are undoubtedly worse people out there, but the father does some questionable things in the name of survival.
I have heard people praise this book rhapsodically; I have heard people curse it violently. I felt the need for neither. It was an enjoyable story, with enough meat in the story to provide fodder for discussion for a long time. McCarthy builds up a vivid world with very real characters and engages our emotions all the way through. His quirky use of language aside, this was a quick, good read, one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. You know, to anyone interested in a shatteringly depressing post-apocalyptic nightmare.