Okay, I admit it. Until this month, I'd never read anything by Cormac McCarthy. As a result, I can't tell you how his latest novel, The Road, compares to what he's written before, whether in style, mood or anything. I do, though, feel safe guessing it's probably the darkest book cover he's used.
More honesty. The only reason I picked up The Road is because it was described as a tale of a post-apocalyptic world. Sounds like the kind of stuff I like. In fact (SSHH!), it even sounds like (OH MY GOD!) science fiction.
Now that I have likely destroyed any interest in this review because I have (a) admitted my ignorance of McCarthy, (b) called an American literary giant's book science fiction, and (c) really pissed off the literati because of the foregoing, let me say I like this book. A lot. I'm not quite ready to call it this century's A Canticle for Leibowitz of post-apocalyptic literature but it has aspects that make it equally as impressive in other respects.
The Road is written in language as stark, austere, and almost unconventional as the world it portrays. This is a world some years after an apocalypse likely, but not necessarily, caused by a nuclear war. This is a world that was largely consumed by fire, yet where fires still erupt and ashes still fall and coat virtually everything. This is a world where day is eternally gray and night is "sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening." This is a world in which "the man" and "the boy" travel in search of food, shelter, and any other amenity that may provide some sort of respite to the relentless grind of merely trying to survive day by day. This is a world with no crops and no animals in which people have resorted to cannibalism. This is a world so devastated and depleted that the world of Mad Max might seem a holiday.
After scavenging the charred remains of houses in a destroyed community, the man
… 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. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
Yet this is the world in which the father and son still search for other "good guys" while trying to avoid but still encountering mostly "bad guys." The son has known nothing but this world, which continues to putrefy. The father remembers life and a wife before the holocaust. His wife, however, saw no livable future and opted for death over what life had become. The search for "good guys" began as much as an effort to keep some spark of that former world alive as to find safe haven. Yet desolation and destruction take its toll. The boy asks about the bravest thing the father ever did. "He spat into the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said." And there is only one thing that drives him to get up each morning.
This all, of course, yields a certain degree of fatalism. One old man they encounter assures them things will be better when everybody is gone.
When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: Where did everybody go? And that's how it will be. What's wrong with that?
Staying alive also depends in large part on luck. Each time the man and the boy are on the brink of starvation, they stumble across food and other supplies that offer a chance of surviving a while longer. Yet even when such caches are located, they fear staying too long and are left to gather only what they can carry in the shopping cart that serves as their repository. And the man realizes that, in the end, "good luck might be no such thing. There were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead."
Yes, The Road is full of desperation and despair at levels that threaten to harden and gut any soul. Yet amidst it all is a theme that pervades many great books, whether they are called literature or SF. Love. Absolute, unconditional, and limitless love.
Here it is the love of a parent for a child. The man's sole raison d'être is doing what he can and living long enough to perhaps offer his son a chance for survival. As he tells the boy after being forced to kill a bad guy who tried to harm the child, "My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you."
That expression of love is stark and brutal because it reflects the world they confront. Yet in the worst of all possible worlds, McCarthy shows that the power of this love is such that it can survive even in the face of an apocalypse. Once you come to this realization, you also truly understand that McCarthy dedicating the book to his young son makes words like literature or science fiction meaningless and irrelevant.