This is a very emotionally compelling and evocative novel. McCarthy’s distinctive writing is well-suited to the subject. After only a few pages, the reader feels dingy and dusty and, after a few more, despairing of hope. The novel does not take long to read partly due to the book’s not being very long and partly because it sucks you in. As unpleasant as the setting is, the reader wants to see the plot through. At least, I did.
The Road has been regularly lauded and the movie is coming out soon. If you have not heard the basic setup, it is this: A man and his son are traveling down a road in a post-apocalyptic world. It is never clear what disaster befell the earth, but it has left only a few human survivors and, apparently, almost no other animal or plant life. The human survivors are desperate, starving, and, in many cases, cannibals.
Our heroes, never named, have decided to travel south on the road. The reasons for their decision are unclear. The man does not seem to know what lies in the south, other than the ocean. He simply has faith that something is there. Something for, if not himself, at least for his boy. And that is what the book largely is about, faith and perserverance in the face of an uncaring, unforgiving, and desolate universe.
As they travel through the bleak landscape, the man and boy have harrowing encounters with other humans, both living and dead. After one such encounter, the man reassures the boy:
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
The boy, of course, is constantly afraid, as is the man. Most of their dialogue involves the man reassuring the boy against his fear. The man is just as fearful, but, for the boy’s peace of mind, he hides it as best he can.
We’re going to be okay, arent we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.
The boy is too young to remember life before the disaster. The father, however, remembers some things too well and, to his horror, others less well every day.
He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parasible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
While there is much religious symbolism and allegory, the road could also stand in for life. The man often things about the brevity of life and “the crushing black vacuum of the universe.”
Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
In the face of desolation, though, man and boy keep going.
This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They dont give up.
For me, this seemed to be the message of the novel. And, yes, I think there is something of the message novel here. McCarthy is meditating on the human willingness to keep going despite evidence that there is nothing at the end of the road but more emptiness. The fire is passed from parent to child. The parent nurtures the flame in the child long after the parent has given up his own passion for life. It is what we do.
These characters are placed in a particularly bleak world. This is part of my problem with the novel. I thought the world was too bleak. The only non-human animal we see is one dog. By all appearances every other mammal, bird, fish, insect, or other animal has perished in the disaster. Plants of every type also seem to have been destroyed. Granted, with books like this, you simply have to enter the world and ignore some questions of plausibility. Still, the world felt a little too artificially constructed to serve McCarthy’s ends.
The book is overrated, but still well worth the read. It can be interpreted in many ways, both religious and non-religious, which probably explains its broad appeal and popularity. The novel is dark. The glimmers of hope are slim, often fleeting. This is not a happy, pleasant book. McCarthy will take you to forbidding, unsettling places. Be prepared.