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Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Dystopia
Paperback: 287 pages
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication Date: March 28, 2007
ISBN-10: 0307387895
ISBN-13: 978-0307387899
Author Website: Cormac McCarthy

The Road is a one sit read. I find it difficult to believe that anyone could possibly start reading this book and not continuously read it through to the end. Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-prize winning book is so harrowing, and yet so hopeful, that as a reader turns the pages, he will not be able to stop.

The plot is simple. A father and son travel across a post-apocalyptic wasteland of ash and death. Following old maps, scrounging for tinned cans of food (as nothing grows anymore) and avoiding those humans who have turned to cannibalism in order to survive. The story follows them through their trial and travails. It is not a new plot, and has been used many times before.

But that is not what won the novel its awards. It is the relationship between man and boy that gathers these. The man is practical and utilitarian, the boy conscientious and caring. (Perhaps it is a metaphor for government by the people?) As the two face death, day by day, they find solace in one another’s company. This bond is strong and gets stronger as they face bandits and come close to starvation more than once.

The style of writing is, I believe, Faulknerian, in that punctuation is ignored. Quotation marks and apostrophes are particularly ignored. This can be off-putting to the reader, but move past it, as the work gets really good. The lack of punctuation works for the novel, adding a level of austerity and bleakness to the text. McCarthy’s writing in this way heightens the emotions of the reader and leads him/her to feel the ultimate despair of its characters.

And the despair is deep. It is only deepened in that, as the pair travel the road, the story only gets bleaker and the reader begins to wonder why they continue to travel. It seems the world has ended. Unlike in other post-apocalyptic novels, there is no idyll or paradise waiting just over the next hill. It makes you wonder just what the man and boy are hoping to find at the end of their journey.

Some critics have tried to turn this book into a metaphor on environmentalism. The world is ash and it was caused by some sort of holocaust. A holocaust powerful enough to keep wildlife from surviving, trees from growing, seeds from taking root, and turning the ocean into a gray morass. I can see where those critics get that idea. But the characters never dwell on the destruction, nor really comment on the world as it has become. Most of their conversation centers on death, survival, and the nature of God.

Rather than being a metaphor for environmentalism, I see this book as a metaphor of the search for God and the power of hope and love for one another. Perhaps that sounds like a platitude, but McCarthy has shown the depth to which these things affect us, and how all of our life is really a striving after purpose and hope.

Ultimately, the man finds his purpose in saving the boy and the boy in helping others even needier than him. More than once the man refers to the boy as a god, and it makes me wonder if the boy is a metaphor for Christ? He certainly displays similar traits. But honestly, that might be too much of a stretch.

If you attempt this book, realize that you will be depressed both during and some time after reading this book. When I walked away, I saw more clearly the beauty of what I had in my life. The cold hard world of The Road showed me the beauty of my own especially of the relationship I have to my beloved wife.

The Road is a moving, depressing, and simultaneously hopeful book. It is unlike any post apocalypse novel I have ever read, and it made me look at my world with more appreciative eyes. The book should be read, and I actually agree (surprisingly!) with the Pulitzer committee and all the reviewers who have so highly praised it. The Road is a work of literature greater than its genre.