The Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the story of a father and son journeying south, over period of months, toward the sea across a post-apocalyptic landscape some years after an unexplained cataclysm has destroyed civilization and almost all life on Earth. Throughout the narrative the landscape is constantly described as completely barren, virtually equivalent to the bare asphalt of the road the father and son travel on. Grey ash coats everything and the world is utterly devoid of vegetation and animals. Silence reigns hauntingly supreme. The reader rapidly becomes captivated by this setting of absolute desolation. The few human beings who survived the disaster and are still struggling to survive in the dead world of The Road have largely turned to cannibalism and nomadic scavenging of materials in destroyed cities.
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
Realizing that they will not survive another winter in their present location, the father decides to move south with his son towards the coast along empty highway roads, carrying their few possessions in knapsacks and a shopping cart, encouraged by a vague hope of finding a better climate and living conditions. As the title of the novel indicates, the narrative of The Road is dominated and defined by this simple but primordial goal. Though this may be unappealing to some readers, in many ways the very narrowness of the novel's focus solely on life and death matters can be considered as a refreshing break from the less vital action of a traditional story.
“What's the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat in the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.”
The boy's mother, pregnant with him at the time of the cataclysm, has committed suicide out of despair some time before the story begins, despite her husband's pleas for her to endure. The father, who refuses to abandon his son, coughs blood every morning and eventually comes to know that he is dying. Throughout the story he struggles assiduously to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure, and starvation, as well as from what he sees as the boy's innocently well-meaning, but dangerous desire to help the other wanderers they meet. They carry a pistol with two bullets, meant for protection or suicide if necessary; the boy has been instructed to kill himself rather than fall into the hands of cannibals. The number of bullets is reduced to one when the father is forced to shoot a man who intends to kill the pair. So as to bear the horrors of their devastated surroundings, the father maintains the pretense, and the boy holds on to the real faith, that there is a core of ethics left somewhere in humanity and that they are two of the goods guys "carrying the fire" of ethics.
“Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you're happy again, then you'll have given up. Do you understand? And you can't give up, I won't let you.”
Although the pair eventually reach the sea, the climate and availability of food haven't improved at all. Shortly afterwards the father finally succumbs to his illness and dies in the most masterfully poignant scene in the book. At the beginning of their journey “they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire," without his father at this heart wrenching point in the novel, the boy is left with nothing at all. However, after two days of holding wake over the corpse of his father, the boy encounters another man, who explains that he has been tracking the pair. The man convinces the boy that he is one of the good guys and takes the him into his family, which consists of his wife and two children.
In general it is hard to passionately enjoy a story that is as constantly grim and horrowingly descriptive as The Road. The story can nonetheless be appreciated for the powerful message it is trying to convey. This story goes further than a simple man vs environment plot and brings into play man vs himself and his morals and emotions, showing how far one will go to survive. Perhaps the only major drawback to The Road for the reader is Cormac McCarthy's refusal to employ commas in lists, instead using "and" over and over, as well as his repeated use of the same simple words and his inclusion of virtually no dialogue. Though these abnormal literary techniques serve to help convey the desolate post-apocalyptic setting and the characters' dismal situation, I personally found that they also provide a source of mild but constant annoyance for the reader. Overall, the novel is worth reading for the clear perspective it offers of a world in which every single unnecessary element has been stripped away, leaving only life, death, love, hope and faith.
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
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