As soon as I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I wanted to call a “time out” from life and put everything on pause so I could do nothing but read, read, read this unrelenting book.
McCarthy pens a powerful tale of devotion and love set in a post-apocalyptic world of despair and hopelessness, as stripped down and bare as McCarthy’s spare, elegiac prose. I mean, he’s writing bare-bones, devoid of commas and apostrophes and, frequently, even complete sentences. But oh, does he capture images and emotions! It’s almost stream-of-despondent-consciousness from characters who wish they were unconscious.
The story follows a father and young son as they make their way across the barren landscape toward the sea. They’re ostensibly traveling there in the hope of finding better living conditions, but this is, after all, a world without hope.
Look, for instance, at the world through the father’s eyes as he wakes up one morning on their journey. “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment of the world,” McCarthy writes. “The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
And the world only gets more bleak from there.
This is an ash-covered world scraped clean by some man-made catastrophe that annihilated all life. The few humans left a decade later are mostly lone animals, hunted by roving bands of cannibalistic thugs; others hole up in bunker-like communes. No travelers are safe. Anywhere.
And yet father and son move on, finally driven from the relatively safety of their home in the north by unknown forces. The novel begins some time after they’ve begun their migration. McCarthy immediately puts readers on the road with the two of them, and with no spectacle or theatrics, begins to ratchet up the tension. It doesn’t take long for a reader’s nerves to get as edgy as father’s and son’s. And with each page, each section, the novel’s iron fist slowly keeps squeezing the reader’s heart.
The plot never lets up, not once, never rests–after all, the characters themselves must be ever-moving, ever-vigilant–but The Road proves that the best characterization comes through action. This is a love story between father and son. The pain and fear and love they share is fearfully palpable and true.
The Road is one of those rare masterpieces that made me read it. I suspect it will continue to haunt me for a long, long time.
(I originally wrote this review in October 2006, when the novel first came out, and I just finished my fifth re-read. Since its release, The Road has since won accolades ranging from the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction to selection in the Oprah Book Club. I thought it worthwhile to dig out my original review in light of the new movie adaptation now playing in theaters. See the movie, but absolutely read the book.)