The Road, by American author Cormac McCarthy, is a post apocalyptic novel published in 2006 that follows the journey of a father and son as they struggle to survive a world destroyed.
The Road is a very popular and successful book that went on to be awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006 and the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was adapted into a film of the same name in 2009, directed by John Hillcoat and starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. I have seen and enjoyed the film and was aware of the book it sprung forth from but had never gotten around to reading it, until now.
Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island. He later went to Chicago, where he worked as an auto mechanic while writing his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. He is is a successful author with a relatively small output considering his first release was 1965’s The Orchard Keeper through to 2022’s Stella Maris with only a total of 12 full length novels in that time frame as well as a handful of screenplays, short fiction and essays. Still, you probably do quite well out of the rights for The Road and No Country for Old Men, a hugely successful movie also adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s work.
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food–and each other.
The idea behind The Road is really straightforward and easy to engage with. A father and his young son journey on foot across a post-apocalyptic ash-covered United States some years after an extinction event that has wiped out indistry, civilisation and nature. The event is never explained. We don’t know, and will never know, what happened but it isn’t important as this story is really an exploration of love and family in the darkest of times, exploring the bond held deeply between a father and son. The boy’s mother, pregnant with him at the time of the disaster, committed suicide some time before so they are truly alone.
Realising they cannot survive the winter in northern latitudes, the father takes the boy south towards the sea, carrying their meager scaveneged possessions in their knapsacks and in a pulled supermarket cart. The father is unwell, originally suffering from a cough, but clearly something evolving into a more serious illness, likely caused by the almost unbreathable ash filled air.
His son is an innocent. Meek, weak and afraid as would be expected of a youngling in such trying times. This is the Father’s greatest fear and concern in a world of concerns. He is ill, who can look after his son when he is not around if he can even survive himself? He debates this regularly, internally, seeming to decide that he wouldn’t put the boy through such an awful things as to have to survive, alone, in a world full of death and those who would do him harm. Worringly, he may have to do the right thing by him, something his wife had already done and suggested they both do too.
His son’s innocence and desire to be a good person means the father spends considerable time assuring his son that they are “good guys” who are “carrying the fire”. Even when they have no choice but to do things that might in other circumstances be considered not so good. The pair have a revolver, but only two rounds. It is as much for show as it is for firing with those two bullets really being kept back for themselves. The father tries to teach the boy to use the gun on himself if necessary, to avoid falling into the hands of cannibals. Another part of the new world they have to contend with as food is so short, humans are now fair game.
Aside from stray survivors, and cannibals, there are also bands of bandits, travelling in packs, taking what they want from those less capable. One such group happens upon the father and son during their travels where one of the marauders discovers them and seizes the boy. The father shoots him dead and they flee the marauder’s companions, abandoning most of their possessions. Later, when searching a mansion for supplies, they discover a locked cellar containing naked people whose captors have been eating limb by limb, and flee into the woods.
As they near starvation, the pair discover a concealed bunker filled with food, clothes and other supplies. They stay there for several days regaining their strength and then carry on, taking supplies with them in a cart. They encounter an old man with whom the boy insists they share food. Further along the road they evade a group whose members include pregnant women, and soon after they discover an abandoned campsite with a newborn infant roasted on a spit. Is that scene setting enough for you? They soon run out of supplies, again, and begin to starve before finding a house containing more food to carry in their cart, but the man’s condition worsens.
They continue their slow starving trudge towards the coast, finally reaching it’s grey waters and ashen beach where they discover a boat that has drifted from shore. The man swims to it and recovers some more supplies, but the boy becomes ill which slows their progress. Again, while on the beach, their possessions are stolen. Once again stripped to the bone, with no food, an increasingly ill father and son slowly make their way further South. In there terrible state, you wonder how can they survive. You also can’t help but wonder, why they would want to.
The Road is a genuine post apocalyptic masterpiece of story. It is bleak, desperate and depressive at heart showing an impossible journey both physically and mentally but beneath that grim exterior, it is also a tale of love, loyalty and dedication. The Father’s desperate thoughts regarding his son’s future are terrible but relatable, to a degree. Bleak is the word that describes The Road best though, and it shrouds you. Don’t expect to come out of this feeling great but do expect to have felt.
The story is repetitive at times and I can imagine that frustrating some but for me, I found it added to the overall atmosphere. It was repetitive, as was the journey on The Road. Travel a mile, shelter, get assailed, lose your suppliers, nearly starve and repeat, day after day, week after week. So all in all, a slow paced story that resembles their dangerous trudge forwards. A bleak and depressive atmosphere that resembles the world as it had become. A narrative of love and fear for your child. How do you feed them? How do you keep them warm? What will happen to them when you die? Its terribly desperate and I love that.
But, I do not always love the way it is written grammatically. At times I found it downright frustrating and confusing. Conversation between the Father and the Son are never included within quotations and apostrophes which means that internal and external dialogue are written the same way and that is confusing. Sentences seem to end weird, often feeling half formed with verbs in strange places. I don’t get the point of that as it doesnt add anything to the story. It just hurts the flow.
All in all I find The Road to be a phenomenal book, with an intense and emotive story told really well with believable characters. It just loses a few marks as the writing stlye is unnecessarily weird, to me.
Cormac McCarthy Links
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Book Title: The Road
The Final Score - 8/10