Cormac McCarthy is considered one of the best American novelists today. He is certainly a wordsmith. Few writers alive have his gift for aphorisms and metaphor. I'm currently reading his novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, a fictionalized account of The Glanton Gang in antebellum Texas. It's taking me a while, not because McCarthy's book is hard to read, but because it is dark and has a depth that requires attention.
I saw The Road in a book store. Reading the flap I learned that it was a post-apocalyptic story. That and McCarthy's writing interested me. A week ago Saturday I was borrowing books on CD from the library for my trip to northern Arkansas. They had The Road, so I borrowed it. I'm very glad that I did.
The book tells the story of three main characters. The first two characters are the Man and the Boy. The Boy is the the Man's biological son. The Man is trying to keep the Boy alive in a bleak landscape of desolation and destruction. The third main character is the world, the landscape around the Man and the Boy. No one takes a setting and makes it a character in its own right like McCarthy. You can see this process in Blood Meridian but it is more obvious here in The Road.
In the novel, the world is ending. It took me a while to realize there were no animals, save for the mention of a dog. The world is covered in ash. The sun and moon are obscured. Ash carpets the ocean. People wear makeshift masks to protect from the ash. There is mention of some plant life (trees, mushrooms) but no crops. As they move along the road — a series of roads and highways — the characters spot cities devoured by firestorms and lone houses ransacked for food. At all times they fear roving bands of canibals.
The Boy was born soon after the cataclysm. The Boy's mother, the Man's wife, is dead. The Man and the Boy have only themselves. The temperature is dropping, and they don't believe they can survive another winter, so the Man leads them south, for warmer weather and, hopefully, food. The Man has told the Boy that they are some of "the good guys" and that they "carry the fire", presumably the fire of civilization and humanity amidst brutality and a new dark age.
When I describe the world as bleak, I mean it. This is no survivalist fantasy like Lucifer's Hammer or Red Dawn. The question isn't so much how they can survive, but if they should survive. The Man is sick and getting worse. In spite of that, he forces himself to press on, to teach the boy how to survive... and to kill the boy if things get so bad that there is no choice.
I wasn't sure if I'd like the book even while I was half way through. The story is entirely character driven. There's no "high concept" plot. In fact, early on you could be forgiven if you doubt that there is a plot at all. It isn't until about two thirds along that you realize that McCarthy has been developing his characters, and that the development is the plot. With that development, you discover that, perhaps, there is hope; perhaps the world is not entirely bleak.
None of the above properly describes the lyricism of the prose. Here is but a small excerpt:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out and touch the child sleeping besides him. Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.
I understand that there is biblical imagery within the novel. Not being a biblical scholar I missed this, such as all the clocks in the world stopping at 1:17, apparently a reference to John 1:17, "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." This suggests that the Man is a Moses figure while the Boy is the embodiement of Christ. Biblical symbolism is found in McCarthy's other books, so it fits. In spite of the symbolism, the novel's take on religion is somewhat brave.
A number of reviewers suggest the holocaust was a nuclear war, but you never discover what caused the cataclysm. There are strong suggestions that the destruction of the world was man made. Nuclear armageddon seems the most likely explanation, but there is no mention of radiation, nor any obvious effects of radioactive contamination. In fact, the cause isn't important. The world is dying, decaying. That's what matters. by not focusing on the cause the question is taken off the table. A lesser talent would have wasted time on an answer that doesn't matter.
I will finish with a word about the CD. The unabridged recording is on six discs. The narrator is Tom Stechschulte. Stechschulte is excellent. His voice is perfect for the story, as the Man is the point of view character for most of the story. I've heard other books on CD narrated by Stechschulte, and those have been likewise excellent. He is clear and evocative. The book has tracks at about every three minutes, for easy bookmarking.