In a world brought to the end of days by nuclear winter, a man and his son travel south. There’s nothing left in this bleak landscape: trees, animals, people are all dead, except for a few survivors — cannibals and rapists — who pose a terrifying danger. The nameless pair scavenge food and supplies from the dead in order to prolong their own lives a few days more. In The Road, Cormac McCarthy poses the question: what can still be good, what can be right or true, in such an impossibly grim scenario? When the only possible remaining tenet is every man for himself, how can we find ourselves still capable of living for others?
When I first began to read the book, I thought it might be a simple survival tale, though with very little prospect of actual survival at the end. There’s a good deal of that in it: the way the father and son look for canned goods in the wreck of old supermarkets or the shelves of abandoned homes; the way they wrap their feet in rags; the way they load a shopping cart with bits of whatever they can find in order to prolong their lives. But as the story develops, it becomes clear that what is at risk is not so much their lives but their souls. How can they survive the road without robbing others who are still more helpless than themselves? How can they spare pity, when they have so little to spare? In a world like this, how can you tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys?
The relationship between the father and the son — a desperate one, as everything is — keeps some of this fire alive. At the beginning of the novel, the father is determined to kill his son if he must, out of mercy; not to leave him alive alone. As the book progresses, however, this determination wavers. The son is a moral compass. Though he is as aware of danger as his father is, he can still imagine helping others: a little boy, a baby, an old man. Help is beyond his father’s petrified imagination. Without the boy, he would slide farther and farther into fear and hatred; with him, it’s possible to keep the soul’s love alive.
McCarthy’s prose is spare and beautiful. (He has the trick of not using apostrophes, which I know drives some of you crazy, but it doesn’t bother me at all.) I’ve read his Border Crossings trilogy, and it’s very different from this in tone and content, but his use of evocative language and desperate men doesn’t change. I thought of The Mouse and His Child as I read this: another Beckett-like vision of a father and son at the end of the world, and another strange reason for hope.
This was the last of the books Teresa recommended to me in this year’s book swap. I’m so glad I read it, and I can’t wait for the new batch!