The Road. Indeed. It is a road, a journey, a trek through hell, but is both more and less than that. Less than that meaning: Cormac McCarthy presents bleak as no other writer can. While I was reading it, several times I thought that I’ll never again believe a writer who uses the word “hopeless” to describe the plight of their character. In The Road, there is nothing but hopelessness. Almost. Which leads to where I struggled with this novel.
Let me cut the suspense. I’m giving it 5/5 stars as Amazon let’s us grade books. I’d give it 6/5 if I could figure out how because there is much to praise here, though that is putting it too gently.
Warning! Warning! Warning!
Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!
But let me share why I had some problems with this story.
I have long avoided reading it though friends have encouraged me to. I only read it after reading McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is a far better novel in my view.
I’ve long avoided the novel because, well…the premise is that they are traveling down a road in a post apocalypse setting. One of the first things you learn as a combat soldier is you never take the road. In the military, these are called “natural lines of drift.” It’s a clever way to say “the route people will take”. If you have ever walked across fields that cows regularly frequent you will know what I mean. Cows find the easiest path and tread it over and over. If you want to kill a cow, just wait along one of these paths. Roads for humans are built to take the easiest path between two points. If you want to kill a human, just wait along a road.
This world of McCarthy’s is populated with “bad guys” who are almost invariably cannibals. This is because there is simply no food left, no living thing other than the last scraps of humanity preying on each other. They are often also on the road, or setting up ambushes along it. Several times during the story, the man and the boy avoid dying in such attacks. Too many times to my thinking.
But the road is needed as a literary device. The two main characters have to start somewhere and end somewhere else. It is both physical and metaphorical. So they travel the road for hundreds and hundreds of miles, miraculously, without getting hurt.
I was so taken with McCarthy’s writing after Blood Meridian, I decided to read The Road in spite of my doubts about traveling this road of theirs. So getting into the book, and starting down the road, the next issue I had was that they were pushing a shopping cart full of their meager belongings.
You may see homeless people pushing shopping carts under bridges or down a sidewalk. You don’t see people pushing shopping carts hundreds of miles over roads after a decade of neglect and (apparently) nuclear blasts. To his credit, McCarthy had his character’s wear out one, and often had to dig a path through sand or snow to keep the cart going. Doable? Maybe…for a while. But the doable part had another issue. It takes a lot of water and a lot of calories to keep pushing such a cart.
The Road‘s landscape — world — is depressingly bleak and gray; even the snow falls gray. Rivers are described as molten-looking sludge. For much of the book, I wondered where they were getting water clean enough to drink. Though they stumbled across a few forgotten caches of food and water from time to time, not until the last few pages did we actually see them getting water out of a creek, straining it to clean it. It was a weak throw to acknowledging how they were getting their water. But he did not share it until the end of the book because it mitigates the desolate, rotted Earth images of the earlier portion of the book. Maybe the streams are not quite so dirty.
Another problem I had with the book was how they were getting enough calories to keep their strenuous trek going (in freezing weather, no less). I’ve lived outside doing hard work for weeks at a time. You burn 3K calories a day…easily.
When the book starts, there is no explanation of how they came to have a cart full of supplies. No matter. But as they deplete them through the story, they invariably stumbled upon more food as they were about to starve to death. And it was food the rest of humanity had missed while they were starving to death. The man and the boy found it, which was all too convenient.
I also struggled with what event would kill all life on Earth other than humans? I don’t doubt there could be a nuclear exchange, or a devastating meteorite strike, or some other terrible event. But what puzzled me was that there is no life. Nothing. There were no rats, flys or cockroaches… These are forms of life that are amazingly resilient. But somehow there are humans wandering about but none of these little critters. Not a lot of humans, but enough that we run into one or two or a dirty gaggle once every twenty or thirty pages. But not a mouse in sight. Seemed odd.
Another moment that stopped me was the famous scene of the man and the boy stumbling upon a just-abandoned campsite where a baby was being roasted on a spit. This was shortly after they hid on the side of the road as three men wearing backpacks and a pregnant woman passed. The clear implication was that it was the woman’s baby over the fire. Horrific? Yes. But did it make any sense? If the woman had died, why not eat her? She would have been more substantial. If she had survived the child’s birth, would she really be able to run away from the camp site? I suppose she could have just been hiding nearby. And if the people had been hungry enough to eat a baby, why would they take the time to pick up their packs and run off without grabbing their dinner?
In short, it is hard to imagine a scenario that made any sense with this one. It felt like McCarthy was more interested in the sensational and horrific than he was in being realistic. This is in marked contrast to Blood Meridian, which is far more violent but seemed more logical to me.
There were a few other scenes — one even more horric and gut-twisting — that I found improbable, but it was the last that seemed completely implausible.
After hundreds of pages and hundreds of miles on the road, and after every single person they came across was a cannibal that wanted them for dinner, at the end, after the man dies, and the boy sits beside him for three days on the verge of dying, who walks up? A well-armed father with a good Christian wife and their two children who are about the same age as the boy.
The man has delivered his son into the hands of someone who will care for him and raise him in a safe environment, complete with similarly aged playmates. Or so is the implication.
Of course, there is no food and the Earth is incapable of growing anything. There are no animals, no living plants, nothing. Are we left to believe that the boy has been saved? Or will he live in misery and despair until one way or the other, he also falls?
This in turn leads to the novel’s strengths. Beyond the extraordinary writing and the stunningly bleak vision, beyond the smart way McCarthy never feels the need to explain why or how it all happened, he sets up unrelenting tension.
Arguably the core story is that the man — the father — does not have the courage to kill his son and then himself to escape their hell. Where is the wife? The boy’s mother? She killed herself, we discover, before the story opened. And when the story opens, the man has a pistol with — you guessed it — two bullets. So we know from the start he has not yet found the courage to kill them both, and not long after we start our trip down the road, the man has to use one bullet.
With only a single bullet left, his dilemma is even more profound: Should he use it to kill the boy in his sleep? Get it over with? If so, how would he kill himself? He could do it, but he no longer would have such a simple and easy means as a self-inflicted shot to the head after killing his son.
In short, he can’t bring himself to kill his child, the child he loves so dearly, the child that trusts him so totally, which is shown over and over through the story.
Thus the tension mounts as we see the man, coughing his lungs out, sick and wounded, starving, limping toward his own death. We are left wondering until the end if he has the guts to kill his child and save him from what will befall him when taken by the cannibals.
In the end, though McCarthy could horrify us, he could not kill the child, his child, so he created an ending that made no sense and was completely out of step with the rest of his dark vision.
All said, the book is brilliant and highly recommended. The writing is uniquely McCarthy’s and the vision and violence are also something few (if any) writers can match. I urge you to read The Road. Just don’t think it is going to be fun.