The Road. By Cormac McCarthy. New York: Random House, 2006. ISBN # 978-0307387899
Reviewed by Joseph Griffith
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama, and Music in 2007, Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, is a haunting tale of human triumph. As a father and his son travel the desolate road to the West Coast, they unintentionally encounter other survivors of “the blast” along the way: travelers, beggars, cannibals, and hunters. It is, in plainest terms, an unforgettable contrast of men’s wickedness and one man’s courage in the face of death.
One of McCarthy’s greatest accomplishments in this story is his vivid demonstration of the hopelessness of humanity when all seems lost. Humans eat other men, women, and children to stay alive. The vast majority of the human race operates without regard to morality. In a disheartening way, McCarthy writes that a large portion of ‘decent people’ become animals when pushed to their limit.
It is the catastrophic nature of the world that pushes men to their limit. In no other post-apocalyptic tale has the absolute desolation of the earth been more simply realized. Years after “the blast”, enormous trees fall to the ground because their roots finally lose their grip. It is as if the world is actually falling down around them. The landscape and sky grow greyer with every moment. The crops have perished years ago, and so have the animals. There is nothing new to eat, only a scarce amount of canned food. In short, McCarthy illustrates a barren America in a very tangible way.
Even the way the story is told exudes hopelessness. Not one character in the text is given a proper name (in fact, the main characters are simply dubbed “The Man” and “The Boy”). When the father finds tracks in the mud, the boy asks whose it is. “I don’t know. Who is anybody?” replies the father. There are no quotation marks throughout the entire book. It is as if the thoughts, actions, spoken words, and recollections of the characters are all compiled into one droning text.
In addition, the story is told in sheer, painful silence. The father and the son meander across a destroyed America without lengthy conversation, presumably to save valuable energy. With a sense of numbness and dull despair, they wear layer upon layer to stay warm, and every time the father coughs up blood, he is brought closer to death’s door. As time continues, they become more and more detached from the world before the flash. In this setting, a man forgets what he wants to remember such as “colors; the names of birds; things to eat; finally the names of things one believed to be true” and remembers what he wants to forget. McCarthy truly portrays a constant, hell-like atmosphere.
McCarthy’s masterful exposition of the total destruction of morality, the environment, and sound, makes the narrative that much more unforgettable. In other words, the simple resolve and inspirational justice of the father and his son shine all the brighter when contrasted with the wicked brutality of humanity. “Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice, difficult as they are to remember,” the father explains.
The father offers no revolutionary new thoughts on the purpose of mankind. He has no fail-proof plan for the salvation of the human race. In fact, when his son asks him, “Are we still the good guys?” he answers with a vague affirmative. “All I know is the child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”
Unlike most end-of-the-world stories, there are no alien invasions, large-scale wars, or warrior kings in The Road. Instead, the driving force of the story is the father’s love for his son. While some may say that the story lacks an obvious, triumphant message, it is precisely because of this that this novel is so compelling. Even in the bleakest of times, the true love of a father is all a boy needs. In my opinion, that is a story worth reading.