I have twice now made the un-PC joke, however true it might be, that Cormac McCarthy's books come with a pair of extra testicles to increase your testosterone levels high enough to appreciate them. He is an angry man's Larry McMurty, a philosophical Zane Grey, and a Louis L'amour tired of pissing around. The master of the vengeful landscape and the moral despair of our souls, he is quickly becoming known as the writer of some the best "literary westerns" to ever grace the english language. That is not so much true as an a priori statement. The man is good.
This is not a western in the truest sense of the word, though it borrows the basic idea of a rugged man who fights through spirit against the landscape (a man with no name, even) and takes place, geographically, in what would probably be the stomping grounds of the old west (unless I am mistaken, nothing is ever named though I believe it hints that they are travelling down towards the pacific).
The story line is as follows. A man, and his son, travel along a series of roads in a post-apocalyptic world. They encounter crazy folk, cannibals, people out of their minds with hunger, and strangers in the distance. It is years after the fact, so easily found food is gone. Their goal is to reach the coast, a land of hope for the man, though the reader probably will hold out little of the hope that the man has.
Most of the details of the story are left to the imagination. From the death of the wife/mother to the number of years that the world has wallowed in its death throes, things are hinted at but rarely obviousles explained. Some reviews have come down harshly on the fact that no definite account of what happened to the Earth is given, though I think this misses the point that it does not matter what happened. It is just something very, very bad. Of course, many have jumped on the "It was nuclear war" bandwagon, which is not precisely what is described: 1) radiation is not a problem, it seems, and 2) the world is covered in ash. There is even a scene in which an earthquake "passes underneath" the man and his son. The novel implied to me (except towards the end, in which some brief descriptions are given that support the "nuclear" scenario) that the cause of all of this was something more complex. Like the world just gave up, or the evil inside man washed things away. Of course, this is all from the viewpoint of the man and his child, so they may simply not know about radiation or about the truth of what happened (the power was out at the first sign of trouble, meaning that there would have been no news sources readily available).
On top of these mysterious elements are the puzzle pieces that almost do not fit. How have they lived this long, if food production has been gone for years and the survivors have been pillaging so hard? Where had the boy and the man been staying that was safe from the roving bands of cannibals? How much hardships had already been overcome? Their life covered in the novel (a span of a couple or three months, I would wager) is harsh, but is it made extra harsh by them being on the road or is it simply the level they have been surviving for some time?
The world fills in largely through conversations between the man and his son (sans quotation marks). They "carry the fire" the boy says, alluding to earlier conversations. The man has apparently talked about good guys and bad guys. The man has taught the kid the power to read and what things mean. In some ways, the man is portrayed as crippling the boy. He does not force the child to take enough responsibility. He feeds the child stories of the past. He is also responsible for keeping the child alive the whole time, another juxtaposition in a book full of them (see the next section for more).
There has never been a novel in which reading about the color gray eats at your soul as it will in this one. What will be my new standard in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel, The Road is an uncompromising look at the conflicting elements of frailty and strength, moral and otherwise, in the human spirit and body.
It is not suprising that a novel that so focuses on the gray ash between the black husks of trees and the white of snow mixed in with the black and gray asphalt and surrounded by sharp lines of white and black would have at its core the juxtaposition of opposing forces. Fire is the destroyer and the lifebringer. The road is safety and danger. The world spawns despair and hope in the simple meeting of a stranger.
The use of these juxtapositions is a powerful one used to keep the reader off of his or her easy balance. These are people. Even the most evil people were probably relatively good before this happened. Starvation in a world that will probably never give up an ounce of new food to humanity leads one to despicable behavior. A stranger met on the road might have been lucky or might be a decoy meant to lure your guard down. You cannot bank on either the man or the boy surviving. Death lurks around every turn. Suicide seems both the best and the worst option.
It drives you forward, to keep reading.
One of the best lines the entire book sums up what might be the strongest juxtaposition throughout: God. God, whether or not He exists, is possibly evil and possibly good. The opinions change on a dime, tumbling after one another. In a lot of ways, most ways even, this is novel about a depleted moral landscape as much as a depleted physical one.
The trip to the ocean can be said to be a spiritual journey. It would be foolish to hope for anything at the end, but it is made because standing still is death and even if going forward is death, as well, then there are two ways to die: in motion and out of it. There is no physical gain to be gained from it and the toil threatens to kill. But it is a movement towards something better than what is directly in front of the man, and so it is good. Even when the man leaves behind (twice) a place that could make an abode for him and his son, and a decent one, it is all because of that phantom sea.
One particular scene demonstrates the idea of the novels central conflict over God. After find a stash of a food in a storm shelter, the man and his boy offer thanks. Except it is as much to the people who prepared the storm shelter as it is to God. In an echo of the matyrdom of Jesus Christ, the people are thanked for giving up the food even if they could not partake themselves.
There, of course, is the obvious allusions as well, the finding of treasures that are relatively great hidden in the rubbish of the world. There is a "three days" later reference in more than one place. The child is described as being both a spiritual being and a physical one, a god. The father/son distinction wavers in places, leaving the reader with the idea that something much bigger is going on. And I think something much bigger did happen.
This is a book worth reading, quite worth reading, but it is not an easy one. Boiled human guts left beside the site of what was probably a feast. The horror of hunter-gathering fellow humans for food. The utterly horrible truth of what would most likely happen to a pregnant woman that far into the decline of the world. The fear of having a bag of food stolen. The fear of rain.
This book will eat at you. Even if you try and not think about it too much, McCarthy is too strong of a writer. His language is descriptive enough without giving away everything. He is consise, crisp. You feel without having it shoveled on thick. It slips in paths of least resistance. You feel it, there, the twilight of humanity.
You realize how it feels to know there is only a few year sleft, to know that it has finally wound down and there is no place to go.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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