In The Road, the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Cormac McCarthy tells a story about goodness surviving in the most awful of circumstances, but does it in such a brutal, hopeless way that it’s hard to walk away from the novel feeling good about much of anything.
The Road takes place in a world devastated by a nuclear holocaust. Most of the world’s population appears to be dead, and all animal life is presumed extinct. Nuclear winter is gradually setting in; the sun is barely visible through the permanent cloud of ash and dush, and the temperatures are dropping. The story itself involves a man and his son moving south on The Road to try to get to a warmer climate, struggling to survive along the way, needing food and water while also avoiding the derelicts, bandits, and cannibals – yes, cannibals – who also travel The Road.
If you focus almost entirely on the interactions between the man and his son – identified, in true McCarthy fashion, as the Man and the Boy – you find a powerful and tender portrait of filial love. The Man is motivated to press on in hopeless circumstances because of his love for his son, who was born on the night of the first bombing. The other people remaining in the world are separated in the eyes of the Boy into “the good guys” and “the bad guys,” and while the latter appear to far outnumber the former, there are hints of goodness here and there in their limited encounters with the good guys, and of course, in the sacrifices the Man makes to give the Boy a chance at some kind of life.
It was hard for me to glean those glimpses of goodness or faith in the human spirit among the sheer desolation of the setting and the stark brutality of McCarthy’s view of humanity, which borders on misanthropy, muted only slightly by the glimpses of empathy he slips into the text at the bleakest moments. Yet the most powerful moments in the book are the most depraved and the most disturbing, not the few moments of tenderness of the Man towards the Boy or the one meeting with “the good guys” on the Road. The prose, as it was in Blood Meridian, was amazing, and McCarthy knows how to weave little mysteries into his writing with talk about “the fire,” but again, beautiful writing that looks into the abyss is still, at the end of the day, about the abyss. It’s a brilliant work, and I can see why it won the Pulitzer, but it was an arduous read and one I can’t say I enjoyed.