Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
As a Pulitzer Prize-winning book set in a post-apocalyptic world, I thought this novel would be perfect for my Reading Challenge. And Cormac McCarthy delivered a gritty and grim tale that gave me pause, just as friends assured me he would.
The post-apocalyptic setting first gripped me in 6th grade when Mrs. Snellback introduced me to Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien. I re-read that book in 1999 and the story continued to resonate with me. I think one theme that I discovered as a young reader and learned to appreciate with maturity is the enduring human will to survive.
And The Road captured that indestructible struggle perfectly. While there were characters who gave up their humanity, the unnamed father and son traversing the road south did not.
As the good guys, they carried the fire. They tried to avoid as many people as possible, but contact with unspeakable acts of horror was inevitable. I had heard that there was one scene, in particular, that was disturbing. It was.
Or I think it was; there were several scenes that turned my stomach. What people morphed into was disturbing. Humanity atrophied, replaced by barbarism robust with slavery, torture, and cannibalism.
Were these people driven to these atrocious acts by the scarcity of resources available in this wasteland? Or were they just devolving into mankind’s worst elements once the laws of civilization were removed?
Either way, the absolute evil that surrounded this father and son made it easier to understand the flashback scenes where the father remembered the mother. Her character did not survive for their journey, but watching them flee from repeated atrocities gave me some insight into her state of mind within the father’s recollections.
McCarthy never explained what destroyed the world, but within the story, there are some clues that suggest nuclear warfare and its fallout. In a flashback dream, the father remembered waking up in the night to a blast and his first instinct was to fill the bathtub with water. The landscape was dark, ash-covered, trees crashing, grey flakes falling. Within this bleak world, the boy had no concept of animals. The father mentioned something about “how the crow flies” and he had to explain his reference to his son because the child had no idea what a crow or bird was.
This novel felt like what a nuclear winter could be. And while the majority of the survivors sacrificed their humanity to eat and continue to live, there were a few characters who retained basic goodness.
The man and the boy came across Ely, an elderly man traveling solo on the road. Ely lied about his name because he did not want to be known. Out of compassion, the boy gave him food and Ely admitted to the father that if the roles were reversed, he would not share. While I would not characterize Ely as kind since he offered no thanks for the generous gift, I would consider him benign and even agreeable given the circumstances. I found myself wondering what happened to him. He was surprised to see a child and discussed the world that was with the father. How did this interaction affect Ely?
And, moreover, what will become of this kind-hearted boy in a world forever changed? The novel didn’t answer this question specifically. Instead, there was a sense of closure and a hint of hope.
As someone who likes to consider, and overthink, survival scenarios, The Road delved into those dark corners of my mind. How would humanity survive its own self-inflicted trauma? Would we even deserve to survive? If you’re considering this book, just be prepared. Traveling down this road will emotionally drain you.