The Road by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 256 pp)
Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933. One of six children, Cormac’s family moved multiple times in his childhood as his father accepted different occupations. In 1951, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee majoring in Liberal Arts. Midway through his studies, McCarthy served in the Air Force for four years. After his service, McCarthy returned to college, writing his first short stories. In 1959 and 1960, he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for Creative Writing. Mccarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Several years, grants, and fellowships later, McCarthy published Suttree, Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses marking his rise in literary acclaim. McCarthy is widely considered one of the great modern American authors and many of his works have been translated to film.
Staring at that Sweet Face
Put your parental judgment cap on. I’m about to drop some quasi-embarrassing stuff. Our 18-month old sleeps in our bed. He doesn’t start the night there. But 99% of the time, he ends the night there. We discuss the importance of teaching him to spend the full night in his own room. But, deep down, I don’t mind him ending up in our bed.
One of the perks of parenthood I never considered surrounds the snuggles you get in the early morning hours when nobody wants to wake up, even if we all sit at the cusp of wakefulness.
In times like these, I try to soak it all in. Who knows how long it’ll last before he’s an annoying teenager. Answer: probably 12 years? I want to etch his sleepy face into my memory, the deep breaths of REM stages. I need to develop deeply held memories for the way he crawls over an arm and squeezes it with all his might as if it were a stuffed animal.
These tiny moments make fatherhood for me and I see Cormac McCarthy leverage them in The Road to create a powerful story about a father and a son in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
A Devastating Read
The most devastating book I’ve ever read, McCarthy masterfully evokes a sense of scarcity in a world where food no longer exists and the cold, stark climate blots humanity out of existence.
Starving and freezing, the novel’s main characters Man and Boy travel South on the well-trodden road, hopeful of warmth and shelter, repeating the actions of many long-lost souls before them.
“In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time” (24).
The road passes through ruins of towns and cities with the dead littered everywhere. Even worse, the powerful survivors roam in packs, cannibalizing the weak as other humans remain the sole surviving food source.
“He carried the revolver in his belt at the front and wore his parka unzipped. The mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth. They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen” (20-21).
The man’s revolver operates with two remaining bullets. In case of emergency, these bullets remain for the lives of the man and the boy.
“What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
Carry the Fire
From a plotting standpoint, we follow the man and the boy as they struggle to find food, to avoid cannibals, and stave off the cold. The man constantly urges them to carry the fire. This narrative grips like nothing I’ve previously read in the post-apocalyptic genre. McCarthy’s prose suffocates the reader in the sheer panic of scarcity. This world has nothing left for its inhabitants and McCarthy makes sure to illustrate this fact.
But even more, McCarthy’s poetry creates a beautiful read.
“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth is in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you” (46).
The Road touches you deeply. Underneath the tropes of genre, McCarthy unearths the subtle things that make us human. In a story about a man and his son, every page offers distilled wisdom and beauty about fatherhood, humanity, survival, and pain. As a new father, this story cuts to the core of my identity.
The Road is the best book I’ve ever read. It transcends its category; it’s the first book where I’ve wanted to immediately read it again.
Verdict: 5 out of 5