By Cormac McCarthy
Review by Nalani Stewart
Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Cormac McCarthy, went on a road trip with his son to visit El Paso, Texas in 2003. While taking in the beautiful landscape around him, he did what many writers do and imagined what the city might look like 50 years into the future. His imagination carried this idea well into 2006, when his finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award novel, The Road, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. This hauntingly brilliant novel isn’t the classic love story but delves deep into the relationship between a man and his son as they travel through a desolate world, void of hope and happiness. The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world, a few years after America was ravaged by firestorms. Unlike other novels that fall in the clichés of the genre, McCarthy decides not to give many details about the nature of the apocalyptic event. Not only have the fires taken the cities, but their reign has taken away most of humanity. Those that are left have reverted back to almost animalistic behavior, killing and eating people to survive. The world as we knew it is gone, and all that is left is the orange and red of fire and blood. As the season quickly turns to winter, the man and the boy—their names are not stated in the novel—travel down a road to somewhere warm and away from the frozen wasteland that they have called home in the North. All they have with them is a grocery cart, a revolver with two rounds, and each other.
Along the way, we learn that the man is sick and dying, but hopes that he can get his son to a place where he will be able to survive on his own. They come in contact with several other survivors, and during a scuffle, the man shoots the survivor to save his son. The boy struggles with who is considered “good” and “bad,” while the man works harder to save his son from the world around them. The man and his son finally make it to the South, but the boy is very sick. Their journey comes to a startling end, leaving the reader turning the page and wishing for more.
The Road often gets a bad rep for its repetition and its long sentence structure. People get hung up on these two aspects of the novel, and give up on it, calling it boring. What these people seem to miss though is McCarthy’s lyrical prose and lack of stereotypical sentence structure which breaks the boundaries of the typical post-apocalyptic novel. Instead of lacking complex qualities or simply being there to further the plot along, McCarthy’s characters are complicated and a product of the world that they saw crumble before their eyes or, in the young boy’s case, were born into. The morality of his characters is questioned, leaving readers to think about what they would do in a world where one either kills or let themselves be killed. Although we may not like the idea of killing, we can’t help but side with the father who is only doing what he must do to save his son while still trying to instill ideas of good into him. After encountering cannibals on the road, the boy as his father if they are the good guys saying:
Son: We wouldn’t eat anybody, would we?
Father: No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes. (108-9)
Rather than just letting his characters be flat and one sided, McCarthy gives them layers letting his readers see that this novel is more than just a throw away genre piece. McCarthy weaves together beautiful moments between the pair, folding in scenes of selfishness and selflessness. The Road makes the reader think deeper than other novels, leaving them wondering where the divide between empathy and inhumanity lies in a world where the top priority is survival.
The Road has clearly earned its Pulitzer Prize, and still has a strong foothold in the world of Contemporary Literature. It takes on a modern feel that allowed McCarthy to blend in American tropes with metaphysical dreamlike starts where the mind of the characters take over and the harsh world grabs a hold. It relies on its powerful scenes of love in a scorched world. Every word in the novel means something. When the characters cry, we cry and when they are scared, we are scared. Not only does McCarthy pull on our heartstrings, but the novel somehow feels familiar to the reader like when he writes:
Father: I cant hold my dead son in my arms. I thought I could but I cant.
Son: You said you wouldnt ever leave me.
I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see. (234-5)
This is not just a story of a father and son; this is a story of life. At some point, we will all be faced with loss and McCarthy shows just how sad and beautiful that loss can be. We all walk this road in life, and we should not abandon all hope just because the world is full of monsters. Although all of the characters don’t get a happy ending, McCarthy shows us that we must hold the torch, and “carry the fire” as long as we can because that is how the world keeps going.
The Road is more than just a confusing post-apocalyptic novel. It may not be for everyone, but McCarthy definitely does have something to say about the way that we lead our lives and the way that we teach future generations to live theirs in an ever-changing world. The Road is full of heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, terrifyingly beautiful scenes that show us that even if the road is long, desolate, and scary, we must wake up every day and keep going, keep loving, and keep the hope alive.
Check out some more reviews from the Guardian and New York Times on The Road here:
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.