If you came here for a quick summary of Cormac McCarthy’s modern classic, then congratulations, because there you have it. Before it is brilliant, before it is visceral or shocking or profound, The Road is devastatingly, crushingly bleak.
The setting for this book is a massive, global extinction event. This is not a rollickin’ Mad Max-type apocalypse where badasses with shotguns take on oil tankers and dismantle the patriarchy. In this blasted and blackened landscape, the fiery bang that ended civilization was merely the precursor to the whimper with which the human species would finally expire, years later, of starvation and cold. A man and his young son, who is quite possibly the last child on Earth, struggle through a constant snow of falling ash down a road where cannibals and thieves stalk them constantly. Burned and desiccated corpses far outnumber the living humans they meet, and in general, the corpses are much better company. The only other survivors they encounter are a colony of mushrooms. The grass is dead. The trees are dead. The ants are dead. The sooty remains of everything humanity believed to be immutable are grayed by piles of the same ash that chokes the man with every breath.
In the dying twilight of the human race, the boy is the man’s reason, his justification, and his hope. Neither the boy nor the man ever gets a name. The man is every man and any man. We don’t know what he did before the catastrophe that destroyed life on Earth. Maybe he was a software developer. Maybe he was a farmer. Both of those professions are equally obsolete on the road. The man’s job is the last, first, and most basic job of life: keep the species alive. Continue the genes. Let me be the first to say that he does a great job considering the circumstances.
But there is more to life than grinding along above ground. The man is a relic of a world that, ultimately, was not viable. As such, the man makes certain assumptions and indulges in certain justifications that make sense in the paradigm of the old world. It so happens that the other people they meet on the road are also of that world – adults who saw everything go to hell and responded in accordance with how that world had prepared them. The boy, on the other hand, has never known anything but ashen forests and melted blacktop. To him, other humans aren’t threats. They’re rare, even precious.
Both the boy and the man have lonely moments, of course, and they are nuanced and profoundly moving. However, the man’s something of a…well, a man. He does not talk about his squishy feels and strikes one, directly from the get-go, as a tough bastard. The boy is kinder, softer. Though the man does his best to toughen up his kid, his entire existence is dedicated to making sure that his expressive, emotional child survives, as though the very sensitivity that endangers the child’s life in the unforgiving landscape are also a critical piece of what he wants to preserve. Makes ya think, huh?
The story is one of survival and of what survival means. The why of existence is too often lost on real-life bunker builders and preppers and end times nuts. Why survive? Once everyone else is dead, what reason is there to go on? McCarthy’s message is multifaceted, but at its heart is the idea that purpose is transformative. It is what separates humans from what happens to walk on two legs. It’s more important than food, fire, and the ability to read.
It might be too far a stretch to say that McCarthy is the inheritor of the Hemingway literary tradition, but McCarthy is the inheritor of the Hemingway literary tradition. His prose is as spare as a dead cedar tree in a nuclear winter. He strings together “ands” and sentence fragments that keep it feeling edgy. For example, to quote one of the book’s more cheerful passages:
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running.
It’s a rare author who enhances his post-apocalyptic book about a frozen and dying world with actual chills that run down your spine.
It’s a quick read (or listen, if you prefer) and one that sticks with you for days. Possibly longer. I’ve already put aside the cranial real estate to continue thinking about it for a long time.
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- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
- The Stand by Stephen King
- The Last of Us (PS3)