THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

Book Quote:

“Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping sates, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster (JUN 20, 2010)

What is the Pulitzer Prize winning The Road by Cormac McCarthy really about? The plot is easily summarised as a man and his young boy moving south on foot through a post-apocalyptic North America towards southern shores, in hope of better chances of survival. The core reasons for the novel’s existence may be a little harder to grasp.

The scenery they move through is burned and dead – there is no alteration in the state of the entirely annihilated landscape, and nothing at all living apart from a scattering of humans – the solitary exception is one bark of a dog. Whatever the catastrophe was, it seems to have wiped out something like chlorophyll or plant life at some fundamental level. The sea is entirely barren when they reach it. There is no moss, no grass, the trees are all dead and continually falling over, and of course no crops grow. Without the base of the food chain to work on, there are no animals – hence the only living things remaining are the alpha predators that are humans, now also predominantly turned into cannibals. Scavenging sustains the two main protagonists but the obvious implication is that almost everything has already been scavenged, it is only a matter of time before all nourishment finally runs out. There is no indication whatsoever that there will be any change in circumstances.

Opinions that have been mooted (along with many others) as to the core thrust of the novel are:

  • It is a story of the love between a father and his child
  • A story of every parent’s worst nightmare, of not being able to live long enough to secure your child’s future
  • A story of biblical redemption
  • A warning to the present generation to cherish the luxuries we have

I have to confess, I do not see any redemption in this story. There is no hope anywhere, and though at the end the child is “saved” temporarily, the implication does not change for the “long-term goals,” as the child himself puts it. The father and the child certainly love each other, but what the nature of that love is might be slightly different to what one would expect. There are a few passages that point what this might be.  For example, when the child gets ill with a fever and the man is sure the child is about to die, he is frantic with the fear of isolation for both of them. He tries not to leave his son’s side so that he will not die alone, and repeats to himself the oath he made that if the child dies he will not let him “go alone”– in other words, the father will commit suicide. Interestingly, he terms this the “last day of the earth,”  not the last day of his own existence on earth. As everything else has been wiped out, his perishing would demark the end of the world.

At another point, they encounter a key moral dilemma. After a solitary traveller steals all their provisions, they track the thief down and the man makes the thief take off all his clothes at gunpoint, leaving him naked and stranded in the road, justifying it as being exactly what the thief had attempted to do to them: the biblical eye for an eye. The child weeps uncontrollably in pity for the stranded man and they eventually return the clothes, leaving them piled up on the road as there is no sign of the traveller. The father tries to explain to the son why he has acted so uncharitably, and that he too is afraid. He says:

“You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? He said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes, I am, he said. I am the one.”

Why is the boy the one that has to worry about everything? He relies on his father for food, shelter, ideas, directions: everything. The implication is twofold. The boy is the true repository of “the flame” of charity and compassion that they both think they are carrying. Also, the boy is well aware of the insubstantiality of the status quo – that of his father being present and guiding him through the desolate world. He watches his father for the worsening signs of sickness, and knows it is only a matter of time before the father is no more. Once that happens, the father will have no further worries. Both protagonists are often shown envying the dead. Death is by no means an ultimate state not to yearn for; it is the dying that is the problem.

And here I think we get to the very heart of what this book is about. It is a book about dying. What are the ethics of dying? I think the insistently dead grey scenery of the world and all the post-apocalyptic implications are mainly a metaphor for the situation of truly having nothing to live for. There really is no hope whatsoever, there is no redemption in this life. The biblical resonances so often noted are not aimed at an immediate, earthly application but the workings of the soul. The two characters both seem to be believers in some form of afterlife, but for different reasons. For the boy, the afterlife seems to have to exist logically as there is no before-life. He tallies the differences between the typically upbeat stories his father tells him about how life was before the catastrophe with the reality that he himself knows. If the stories are not “true” now they must have some truth somewhere, but he makes it plain that he has no point of reference for his sort of “happy” truth. But where does the boy’s “fire” come from? The answer to this, it is implied that the father thinks, can only be divine. Perhaps that is where the belief of the father comes from, not from the world past or present, but from the boy.

Why do the two of them stay alive? Certainly, for the man, his reason is the child. He labours entirely to save the child, and were the child to die, his link with life would be entirely severed. But what of the child? This is where the biblical tones come in. Christ-like the child is innocent but knows he has to take on the sins of the world and keep living for as long as is allotted. There is no love of life, no thought that life as it is has anything to offer but pain but that one must keep going because one is “carrying the flame.” Just to cement this, there is the background figure of the boy’s mother who has some long time ago committed suicide already – as the only sensible thing to do.

So there are the three options: get out of the running quick because it’s the sane thing to do (the mother), stay in as long as possible because you’re morally bound to (the child), or find yourself a reason, a person, to stay alive for (the father). Bind yourself to something like a raft otherwise the logic of the “secular” (a word McCarthy uses frequently in the most surprising applications) world will inevitably push you into the direction of self-destruction. All of a sudden, we find that the narrative is not in some horrifying future, but right here in our own godless world: these are already our choices.

This once again brings one full circle back to the implication that the dead scenery is indeed a world, but it is the world of the soul. Where has God gone, and where has creation and the gift of life gone? As per previous works by McCarthy, the punctuation in the book has been severely pruned, though relatively few critics bother to refer to the fact. The fragmentation of the sentences. The press-ganging of verbs made to work as adjectives or adverbs – the narrative is one painful trail of action after action. Most apostrophes have been slaughtered, there are no speech marks. The result is a flow of words that seeks to eliminate differentiation between personalities, scenery, time and space. The landscape and the travellers, the state of the world, are all blending into each other, like the corpses of the people who burned to death and were combined into the tarmac of the road as it melted.

The travellers are in constant fear of being “lost,” and indeed even when they know where they are it does not do them much good. What is the right thing to do when you are in the middle of a spiritual wasteland with not the faintest reason to continue to draw breath in this harsh world for one second longer? I believe that the implication here is: there is no sense, and there is no God and no creation apart from what dwells inside us, and that the capacity to care for another creature is the only thing that separates us – in this case, literally – from death. Placed back in the relentlessly materialist, capitalist, selfish scenery that is the reality of today’s world (perhaps more so in America than many other places), these are strong conclusions to arrive at. It is not so much a cautionary tale but a handbook on the choices of paths between the dead shores or the beach, the road and the woods.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 2,853 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage Books; 1ST edition (March 28, 2007)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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June 20, 2010 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags:  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Literary, Pulitzer Prize, Speculative (Beyond Reality), United States, y Award Winning Author

One Response

  1. dougbrun - June 23, 2010

    V – Thanks for your review. I found it insightful and full-blown with insight. I read this book when it came out in 2007, being a fan of McCarthy. I had a reaction that was (almost) unique (I had a similar response to the (now) late Salamango’s Blindness) in my reading experience. I remember it vividly. I closed the book, sat up on the bed I’d been reading on, kicked my legs over the side, put my head in my hands and wept. It held such a stark power over me. You’ve mined some of that in your review. Thanks.

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