On The Road at the End of the World

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What’re you reading?”
“The Road.”
“How is it?”
“I hate it. But I can’t stop reading it.”

The plot couldn’t be simpler: An unnamed disaster in a not-too-distant future has stripped our fair Earth of her biosphere; a terminally ill man and his preteen son head south to escape a lethal winter, all the while hiding from roving bands of cannibals. The wife/mother has committed suicide, a common occurrence. There’s virtually no food left, no animals, no crops. Think about it. The only thing to eat, aside from rare scraps, is people. The cannibals are somewhat organized, even down to harvesting imprisoned humans. Sounds horrible, I know. Yet McCarthy’s exquisite prose renders the mind-numbing depravity plausible, and, in authorly derring-do, riveting.

Perhaps less is more, because The Road is (I think) the only post-apocalyptic book to win the Pulitzer for fiction. It’s a marvel of subtext. No warnings, no politics, no arguments, no fists at the sky, yet it conveys a Zen-like prophetic power, straddling the line between resonant myth and speculative fiction.

The Road is mostly in third person, and the characters have no names, just The Man and The Boy or The Father and The Son. The father’s every action, even some harrowing cruelty, is aimed at protecting his son, keeping life alive, teaching how “the good guys” act, and most important, how to survive in this dying world after he, the father, bites it. The son, born on the eve of “The Event,” knows only hunger, running, and his father’s love. At one point he finds a Coke and is amazed at the nectar of the dead gods.

McCarthy received kudos from environmentalists; “It will change the way you see the world,” “McCarthy is one of 50 people who could save the planet.” He says he wrote the book for his four-year-old son, transcribing some of their conversations during a trip to El Paso, when he imagined fire on the horizon while his boy slept.

When virtually everything but the core of your life is stripped away, will you be, as The Boy asks, “one of the good guys”?

In a surprising move, the cantankerous, publicity-shy McCarthy slumped in a comfy chair across from Oprah, his first and only TV appearance. When Oprah asked him if The Road was a love story for his boy, he said yes. And he blushed.

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