Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cormac McCarthy's The Road: A grim yet rewarding journey

As I've mentioned in past posts, I'm a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, but not for any perverse voyeurism derived from watching the chaos and violence associated with the end of the world (although Mad Max and its ilk are quite fun). Rather, it's the unique set of existential situations and circumstances of the genre--nuclear war, zombie invasions, climate crisis, food and fuel shortages, etc.--that, in the hands of a talented author, illuminate truths about human nature and make for great reading.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a fine example of a novel that uses the stage of a post-nuclear holocaust to say something meaningful. The Road is set in a world of bitterly cold nuclear winter and billowing ash, sparsely peopled with cannibals and scavengers. Cities are charred remains and homes in the suburbs are rotting and collapsed from decay. There is little to no hope for long-term survival of the human race in this dying world.

But in contrast with the bleakness and darkness I experienced while reading The Road, the good things in my life seemed all the brighter. The Road made me appreciate friends, family, and companionship, these lights we have in our own lives against the dark unknown at the end of the tunnel (and ones that we often take for granted).

Imagine what it would be like as a middle-aged man to try and survive in a world that is always cold, where gray, dirty snow falls constantly from the sky, where homes and buildings have been picked clean of food, and where survivors have resorted to cannibalism. In the midst of this, you have a 10 or 12 year-old son (his age is never revealed) who depends upon you for survival. You are literally his lifeline. You have a disease that makes you cough up blood with no hope for a cure. You're largely helpless to stop your son from shivering in the cold, wasting away from hunger, or giving in to despair. Using stark, simple, declarative language reminiscent of Hemingway, McCarthy thrusts the reader into this world. It's grim and unrelentingly awful.

So why read on? Well, as a father with two young children I can sympathize very strongly with the man's plight. His simple love for his boy keeps him going when suicide seems a better option. He carries a gun with two bullets left, and if found by scavenging cannibals, his plan is to use one bullet for his son and the last for himself. He wonders whether he'll have the courage to do so. The boy and his father sustain themselves with each other, and constantly tell each other that they're the good guys, and that they "carry the fire," a small, flickering flame in a world of cruel darkness.

I won't spoil the ending of The Road, but there's a lot going on under its simple surface. McCarthy explores the father-son relationship, faith in God, our curious need to cling to hope in a life that seems devoid of it, growing up and moving on, and coping with death. As you can imagine it's not a fun or particularly easy read, but it's a novel I couldn't put down, and when it was over I hugged my daughters a little bit tighter and felt a little more appreciative for what I have.

Any book that evokes such emotions is a good one in my mind. At times The Road seems to strike a repetitive note, retreading on ground it has already covered. But overall I give it a very solid 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.


Falze said...

Does the book actually have a plot or is it just Zen and the Art of Postapocalyptic Zombie Maintenance? Sounds sort of interesting.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, it's not very plot-heavy, basically the father and son wander from place to place. There are some terrifying scenes and passages, however.

It's kind of like a Hemingway novel (simple, direct sentences describing the action), and not a heck of a lot actually occurs, but I found the total effect and the father-son relationship to be very powerful.

The good thing is if you don't like it, it's hardly an investment of time. It think it was 250 pages.

Mike in MN said...

I don't know if you ever check your old postings, but I just wanted to thank you for reviewing this novel. I came across your blog about a week and a half ago while searching for Moldvay-related commentary, and after reading your review of The Road I was determined to read this book - not an easy task given my young son is now crawling. Anyway, I finished the book last night and I'm still reeling from its emotional impact. I don't know if it would've had the same effect if I weren't a father, which is fortunately a moot point now. What I am sure of is that The Road is one of the most meaningful and heartbreaking books I've ever read. Thanks again for your review.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Mike, I get e-mail alerts when someone leaves a comment on a post, and I always try to respond (it warms my heart to know that people occasionally read these old posts).

The Road was great, but it's one of those books I may never pick up again. It takes your soul through the ringer. And that basement scene with the captive "food" ...yikes.