Is there a god in a world that is nearly destroyed and left covered in gray ash, dotted with wanderers and hunted by people who stop at nothing to survive? How does a father keep hope alive in his young son, except to say that they are the “good guys”, the ones who carry the fire? “This is what the good guys do,” he tells him. “They keep trying. They don’t give up.”
Despite the depressing and desperate scenario, I couldn’t stop reading this the post-apocalyptic story, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The entire book is focused on a man and his son, who have survived unspecified world devastation and whose only goal is to travel south before the next winter sets in. Nowhere is safe. They have been moving for years and they must keep moving and be careful with fire so that they remain unnoticed, for they are not alone. Bands of men haunt the land and when they see them “shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side” the man tells his son, “We have to run. Dont look back. Come on.”
Father and son struggle in unimaginably hopeless situations. As they walk through ruined cities, they face burned corpses, hideous scenes. They suffer brutal cold, drink dirty water, and forage for food amid the terrifying danger of being hunted. They confront gruesome discoveries when they search abandoned houses for food, clothes and tools. But they take what they need and keep moving.
The father, sick with a cough, does his best to care for his son. He feeds him, bundles him in blankets, and comforts him. But there is little to offer. Only that he would never leave his son. He talks to the boy matter-of-factly, but with compassion. He helps him understand that they have to do things to survive, but they would never join the hunters, even if they were dying. “We wouldnt. No matter what.”
The boy was born in this devastation, but his father has memories of another time that are painful to recall. The one that hurts the most is of his wife’s decision to leave them in this world. As he holds his pistol, the man confronts his own ability to decide for him and the boy when or if they should do the same. “Can you do it?” the man asks himself. “When the time comes…Curse God and die…”
Happy discoveries of stored food sustain the two during their journey, but painful decisions and new challenges await them when they reach the coast and the father becomes weaker. As the man holds onto life, he must ask, is his son ready to carry the fire?
The Road isn’t just a story of survival. Cormac McCarthy has created a story of love and sacrifice and somehow shows the reader how to cling to the smallest thread of hope. And although I usually prefer more upbeat themes, I would call this a must-read.
McCarthy uses a simple and straight-forward writing style and makes it his own by including uncommon words such as palimpsest, chert, fey, pampooties and salitter. He also follows his own rules for punctuation and deliberately omits apostrophes and quote marks. I found this lack of punctuation a bit of a distraction, but in the long run, it somehow makes sense in the sparseness of his story’s world.
Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. He has written ten novels, including Suttree (1979), Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), No Country for Old Men (2005), The Road (2006) and The Sunset Limited (2006).
For more information about Cormac McCarthy, visit this Wikipedia article.
I also enjoyed reading this New York Times book review of The Road, “The Road Through Hell, Paved With Desperation” by Janet Maslin.
And click here to watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with McCarthy.
The Road was made into a movie in 2009, starring Viggo Mortensen as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son. Check out this New York Times movie review.
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