The Road

By: Cormac McCarthy
Published by: Vintage Books, March 2007

When do you give up?

What is the nature of hope, of faith, of love?

No simple questions in this book, and no simple answers.

There is one telling episode in the middle of Cormac McCarthy's tour-de-force post-apocalyptic novel (five out of six Amazon reviewers used this same phrase to describe this book!) in which The Man and The Boy, who have been on the road for at least a year, surviving on wits, air, and what little can be scavenged from a bleak and barren world, find a momentary haven: some survivalist's lair, filled with all manner of food and other luxuries.

Oddly, rather than feeling relief and hope, I wished they had not found it. The slow death of hope was by then almost complete. Something has blasted the earth, so that nothing much is left alive, save a few stray humans, most of whom have resorted to cannibalism, a few unburned plants, and no signs of animal life. All that's left is ash and cold and the near certainty of death.

The Man struggles with how to protect The Boy, and in his own way, The Boy struggles with how to protect The Man, his father. Each keeps hope alive for the sake of the other, though they have made a pact that The Man will not leave The Boy in the dark, alone. The spoken, or unspoken agreement is that the gun they have will be a release for both of them should the day arrive when that last little ray of hope is obliterated.

Meanwhile, they are on a self-imposed trek "to the coast." We are never quite sure where they lived, or what coast they are going to, or even why, but it really doesn't matter. There are no real significant landmarks left. In fact, the book itself lacks much in the way of landmarks. There are no chapters. There is little punctuation save periods. There are not quotation marks to set off dialogue. Time passes, but it is marked out by opportunities to eat as much as diurnal cycles or sleep.We don't really know why they have set out on this quest; we don't really know what happened to the earth and its inhabitants; we don't know where our travelers have been, who they were, or even when they set out.

We are simply dropped into the middle of their time on The Road, as if that was all there ever had been, or all there ever would be.

Typically, I love a good Armageddon-type novel. There is something appealing about the idea of starting over again; survival against the odds; the mechanisms of scrounging a living from the remnants of a past world. For the first fifty pages or so, I kept waiting for this type of plot line to develop. By the time The Man and The Boy find the underground cache, I simply wanted them to give up - more appropriately, I would have given up.

When do you know you are the last man on earth? They have this Alice-in-Wonderland conversation with a blind man they meet on the road (Tiresias? The blind prophet of Thebes that Odysseus meets on his travels), who simply says, "When you are."

When do you know there is not one more scrap of food left, one more drop of potable water, one more possibility that life can go on? It's pretty clear that there isn't much hope of another chance. Chased by itinerant cannibals, they can't rest anywhere for long, and simply having food, blankets, or shoes makes them even more likely to be hunted down. When will The Man realize that he can no longer protect The Boy, and can he put a bullet in the child when that time comes? Is it more loving to release The Boy from a world in which there very likely is no prospect except a long, cold, hungry death - to end his life swiftly and surely?

The Man's wife, The Boy's mother, has resorted (as we guess many have) to suicide. She went beyond the death of hope, and there was no turning back. So far, The Man has assured The Boy that they must "carry the fire," that is, hold on to the will to live, the victory of faith over surrender.

But what happens if they are caught by the cannibals? In one scene, the two find a basement full of "meat;" humans chained up and harvested for the meat they provide. Should they be captured, this is what they'll face. Or perhaps they'll end up on a month-long stretch of road where no food can be found, and simply die as they walk. Or perhaps they will get sick - they both do, and each time the sheer panic that untreatable illness would present is immediate and searing for the reader. Or they may simply freeze to death - the sun has long since fled the scene, and nothing but cold, ashy rain and snow are offered up.

Their shoes wear out; they are filthy; their clothing and blankets are wet and offer little protection. I fretted about what would happen to The Boy as he grew - where would he find new clothing, new shoes? I found myself mentally hoarding their scraps of survival, and each time a new small store of goods was discovered, being torn between the momentary reprieve, and the deadening realization that now it can't be over as soon.

So is it little wonder that long before the two found their little bit of Nirvana - rich food, light, beds and blankets, even a warm bath ("Warm at last," says The Boy) - I almost cried with despair that they should have. Now they would have to hope again; now they would not be able to simply stay there and rest and live as long as they could on the stores - sooner or later they will be found if they stay, and bad as it is, it is safer to keep on the move.

Many readers have commented that while The Man reminds The Boy over and over that they are "the good guys," he in fact doesn't act like one when he has a chance to help another straggler. A little boy, a blind man, finally a cold and starving thief who tries to take their pitiable cart full of supplies, harvested at peril from a half-submerged sailboat. The Boy urges his parent to help them; he continues to be Hope Incarnate, though we sense that his persistence of hope is to keep The Man alive more than anything else. These same readers are sure that The Man has become no better than the others - a moral opportunist who simply takes the main chance when he can.

I didn't see it that way. The Man never actively preys on anyone, he merely defends their position. Is that the same thing? If he doesn't want to take the old blind man with them, is it "as wrong" as if he had found the old man and used him for food, or taken all that he possessed?  The Man, because The Boy has asked him to, shares a bit with the old man, but won't go so far as to invite him to accompany them; he flees the scene of the  "meat basement" knowing that this will be his son's fate if they are caught there - and in reality, what could he do?

So in the final analysis, in his way, The Man has abandoned hope. All he can do is protect, defend. He keeps putting one foot in front of the other, and squeezing one more drop of life out of an unwilling environment, but only because of the love he bears the boy, and his inability to find the moral rationale for simply letting the child die.

In a way, his dilemma is an apt parable for some of our more pressing moral issues of today: if attacked, do we simply defend? Or do we go on trying to build a world based on compassion and caring and... hope? Is it really possible to overcome the savagery of implacable and hungry enemies when what is left to sustain us is too meager to go around?

And each time we are given a little window of reprieve, what do we do with it? Can we even enjoy it?

It's a profound, disturbing, beautifully written book. It will keep you up all night reading, thinking, thinking, reading. And it will haunt your dreams.


Tiki said…
That was the best review of The Road I've ever come across. Well expressed. I'm especially glad to see you felt also as though we were dropped right into the middle of the story and that there was no beginning and no given ending.

I was quite disturbed after I first finished reading it but the thinking it provokes you to do long after you've finished the book, gradually gives way to appreciation of the ideas within. The imagery still haunts though.

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