The Road by Cormac McCarthy
You can tell when I really like a book because I start telling everybody about it. This is exactly what I did whilst reading The Road; It was almost evangelical. I enjoyed it because Cormac achieved something new with this piece, something I hadn't felt before. I mean how often does a reader wish for the protagonists to die, simply to put them out of their misery? It’s not common. And that’s why Literary Heroes: Part Two goes easily to The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Yes, the Road is a masterpiece, but dear me it’s bleak. I can’t recall a grimmer book in all fairness. There are apocalypse books, then there’s post-apocalypse books, then there’s post-post-apocalypse books and then there is The Road. The story follows a father and son (although we only ever know them as the Man and the Boy) in a grey, hazy wasteland quite some time after an undefined worldwide calamity. We never truly find out what this event was. This recollection is the only real information we get about the cataclysm.
“The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn't answer. He went to the bathroom and threw the light switch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the window glass.”
I understand for some this lack of back story was frustrating but personally I had no issue accepting the lack of detail in the mythology as Cormac managed to paint the same hazy imagery of the event that he did with the natural world. The memory is in decay within the mind of the man and it is overshadowed by the loss of the man's craven wife.
Our protagonists single task is to head south, away from the winter into a warmer climate. The rubber meets the road, however — no pun intended — in that the simplicity of the task is made to be extremely difficult due to cannibal road agents, the cold and an extreme lack of food and resources in such a dead landscape. Their slog through the endless grey is merciless. And I think that is one of the things that drew me right into this book, the description of the bleak and unforgiving landscape that they roll endlessly through. McCarthy vividly describes a sick world, dying in a fog with nothing on the horizon, least of all hope.
“With the first grey light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless.”
Beyond the description of the deathly landscape, the journey of our two characters delves the existential conundrum of living in such a world. In a typical modern society we ruminate on god and meaning and hope in the safety of civilization, however, they’re are starving, cold, and the moral exploration of their plight is wonderful. There is danger and death at every step they tread upon the road. They’re gaunt and brought to eating the most rudimentary of organic material for any kind of sustenance and to make things worse, the father is coughing blood and knows his days are numbered. He needs to get his son to safety, if such a thing exists. If it does, that’s where they’re going. The man’s hope is all within the son and in fact that if hope or light is representative of a god humanity has lost, then his son is like a god to him.
“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”
So it’s an interesting concept and indicates a well thought out psychology beyond the world. The dynamic is interesting because the man is teaching the boy about kindness and goodness (‘carrying the light’) but perhaps it is only lip service in that the man no longer believes it or really knows what that means because all he seeks is safety from the terror. However, as they travel upon the road they are given opportunities to show kindness and the boy shows the man this in action, so it’s somewhat cyclic in that the man teaches the principle the boy puts it into practice. The son, to the father, is hope, something golden and precious and within the boy he tries to instill what is good. The idea of them ‘carrying the light’ is often discussed and even challenged when they need to kill a man in self-protection. “Are we still the good guys?” the boy asks.
One of my favourite quotes sums up the struggle of the characters perfectly:
“What's the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat in the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.”
This book certainly won’t have you in stitches and is a grinding read but so rewarding. The way Cormac describes his landscape to set the tone of the story really resonated with me when writing Caught by the Storm.