I didn’t want my wife to know I was reading a post-apocalyptic book. It would only reinforce her belief that I’m morbidly drawn to dark and depressing media. That includes the movies and documentaries I watch, the music I listen to and the books I read. But anyway, since it would’ve been silly to try and hide it from her, I went ahead and told her all about it and gave her occasional updates. (tag: the road cormac mccarthy review)

I’d never heard of The Road until a couple of weeks ago. Someone on Twitter mentioned it. They said that it was a good book about a father and his son. And also that it’s a heart-wrenching story. That’s all I needed to hear. I added it to my Amazon cart and the paperback arrived two days later.

Light in the Darkness

Indeed, The Road is a dark story with elements that most people would find “depressing.” These kinds of stories, however, don’t have that effect on me. Actually, quite the opposite. There is a beauty that shines brightly in these kinds of dark stories…and that’s what I’m after. After reading The Road, I felt humbled, appreciative and sober-minded … a state of mind we should want all husbands and fathers to have, in my opinion.

In this 2006 novel, Cormac McCarthy doesn’t really explain how the apocalypse happened or who caused it. There is much debate about whether it was caused by man (nuclear war) or perhaps by nature (meteor strike). The fact that McCarthy leaves out these details, I think, is a statement unto itself. At this point, it doesn’t matter why it happened. And in this current struggle for survival, there’s no time to dwell on the past…neither the bad past nor the good past.

All we know is that it happened several years ago and that it was decisively destructive. Few people are still alive and their existence is miserably cold, dirty, hungry and violent. No institutions exist whatsoever. No government, no police…nor hospitals, schools, businesses or towns.

Most important of all, there doesn’t appear to be any families. Only bands of bad men and lone stragglers who will soon die are out in the open on the road. All semblance of law and order is long gone. It’s every man for himself. And every man rightly assumes that other men will try to rob and kill him.

The Living Envy the Dead

“Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave.”

There are no animals to hunt and there are no birds in the air. No food is growing anywhere. The landscape is burnt. City and country alike are destroyed and desolate. Ash covers everything and continues to fall from the sky. Bodies of water that once flowed are now slow-moving trickles of sludge.

Human corpses are everywhere. And the living look at them with envy. Whatever lies on the other side of death must certainly be better than this horrid existence, even if death makes a man cease to exist. If the nameless man in this story were alone, he would’ve taken his life long ago.

But in fact, he’s not alone. His 9 year old son walks alongside him in this broken world, which presents a never-ending stream of challenges for the man. His love and care for his boy are the only reason he goes on living. And of course, the man means everything to the boy. They are “each the others world entire.”

the road cormac mccarthy review book

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee starred in the 2009 film version of The Road

Not only must he continually struggle to feed, clothe and protect the boy, but the man also considers the contingency of what he must do if he somehow failed to protect him.

That scenario has played out a million times in the mind of this man who has an endless number of miles to walk with his worried thoughts and his precious son.

“Can You Do It?”

The unthinkable conclusion he’s arrived to, over and over again, is that it would be better to swiftly end his boy’s life with a bullet than allow him to fall into the hands of the bad men on the road.

But if that climactic moment ever occurred, he wonders to himself, could he do it? He’s fairly certain that if that time ever came, he would have no time to think about it. That’s why he must make the decision now, on the road, before the threat ever comes. Of all the provisions and burdens he carries, this dilemma is the heaviest of them all. (tag: the road cormac mccarthy review)

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Dads Are Protectors

“If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it.”

I’ve only been a dad for a couple of years. But I already have the “hypothetical protection” dad thing. I think it falls on us the moment they come out of the womb. While driving down the road, I often factor the defensive maneuvers I’ll need to take if some distracted fool were to drift into our lane.

While sitting in a public place with my wife and my boy, I consider which exit I would scurry them to if some hostile threat were to walk through the door. Sometimes I even consider what I would do if we can’t make it to an exit. Or what if I need to confront the threat. My thoughts go in the same direction as those of the man in The Road;

Will I take the courageous action that the moment requires. Is it in me?

Of course, the worrisome scenarios I think about are not as pressing as the threats the man in this book must face. Nevertheless, fathers like us will think about them, worry about them and prepare for them…even if the likelihood of their occurrence is remote. Is that morbid? Yeah maybe. Is that unhealthy? Perhaps it is. But the precious ones in our care are simply too important to subject to risk.

God’s Workshop

This kind of fiction isn’t for everyone. And I totally understand why some people don’t want to hear or read these kinds of stories. But let me try to explain why it appeals to me. I’m a Bible-believing Christian. And if you’re going to read the Bible, you’re going to have a hard time avoiding stories like these. The Bible includes several stories where regular people endured long, confusing trials and dilemmas.

And if you read the whole Bible, you cannot miss the obvious fact that the wilderness is where God works on people. He leads them away from everything that is familiar, comfortable and predictable…to the point where they’re stripped of resources, options and ideas. Whatever sense of self-reliance they had is gone. And then finally, at the point of desperation, a man has to choose between hope and despair. Not just once, but over and over again.

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So I’d say it stands to reason that if God made an effort to put these kinds of despairing stories in his book, then there must be something that he wants us to get from them. Not only does he want us to see and understand the dilemma and the options (hope or despair). But he wants us to see the results of people choosing one or the other.

In The Road, there are only a couple of pages that feature the man’s wife. She went far beyond despair…to the point of cursing her husband, cursing God and ending her life after suggesting to her husband that he should do the same;

“Maybe you’ll be good at this. I doubt it, but who knows. The one thing I can tell you is that you won’t survive for yourself. I know because I would have never have come this far…As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”

Would God Allow This to Happen?

Obviously, an apocalypse…or even the possibility of one, leads to a lot of questions about the existence of God and whether he would allow an apocalypse like this one to happen. Again, I’m not sure if you’ve read the Bible, but the ending of it is pretty intense for everyone involved. That’s a pretty big topic that I can’t get into just now. But I’d definitely like to hear your thoughts about it. Feel free to comment down below. (tag: the road cormac mccarthy review)

Hoping When There Is No Hope

The most difficult thing about hope is that there is often no basis for hope. Or there’s no visible indication that you should have it. If I get sick, I can assuredly hope and expect to get better. I have the resources to get medicine and healthy food. I have medical insurance if it’s something serious. So I can easily have this hope because the thing I’m hoping for is reasonably attainable.

The man in this book, however, has no reason to think this long journey with his son is going to have a positive outcome. There’s no food anywhere except for the hidden provisions that people stored away many years ago. And of course, that won’t last forever. Even if he somehow figured out a way to make a home and produce food, he and his boy would immediately become the target of bad men who would take whatever he has. On top of all that stress, he often emits a fine mist of blood when he coughs, which means he’s likely dying of something he can’t cure.

Yet in spite of all these factors which would certainly cause most men to shirk their duties and fall into despair, the man in The Road literally keeps putting one foot in front of the other and continues to care for his boy. He has a vague plan of heading south and reaching the coast. He has no reason to expect that the circumstances on the coast will be any better than they are inland. But that doesn’t really matter. He simply needs a goal…something to work on everyday to occupy his mind. He has no choice but to hope…even though there is no hope.

One of my favorite lines;

“What’s the bravest thing you ever did,” the boy asks his father.

The man spat a bloody phlegm in the road and replied; “Getting up this morning.”

The Road Cormac McCarthy Review

One explanation for why the man presses on is his sense that his “fathers,” presumably the men he admired while growing up, are watching him from the grave. He often has memories of them from the innocent times of the former world. How would they expect him to handle this? Certainly with some kind of honor and dignity. He passes their lessons on to his son;

“This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.”

He also has the delicate conscience of his son to consider. In spite of living in a land of barbarism and death, the boy insists that he and his dad remain the good guys in a world of bad guys. He pleads with his father to show mercy and care for the poor souls they encounter on the road…even the wretched thief who steals all their stuff.

He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.
He’s going to die anyway.
But he’s so scared, Papa.”
The man squatted and looked at him. “I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.
The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head down, sobbing.
You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? He said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.

Simple Yet Contrived

In fact, the loose and simple style of McCarthy’s writing was quite encouraging to me. I typically get bogged down in my own writing with concerns about technical standards. That preoccupation then becomes a distraction that compromises the progress and flow of my writing. But after reading The Road, I realize now more than ever that I need to put my words on the page exactly as I wish them to be. (tag: the road cormac mccarthy review)

On the other hand, something which did bother me in this book was the awkward usage of flowery, overly-sophisticated words and phrases. I can understand and accept this to some extent when McCarthy is narrating a point to us, the readers.

But even from the quotes of the characters themselves, there just seemed to be a lot of lofty, unlikely verbiage. If a woman is on the verge of killing herself, for example, I would not expect her to say something like this;

“A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body.”

What the heck does that even mean? Was she a poetry teacher in the former world? This is just a little pet peeve of mine…overly-sophisticated language which goes over the heads of the people for whom it’s intended. I wrote all about it on another website: When Words Get in the Way;

Overall, however, the fancy talk wasn’t too much of a problem. I mainly just breezed past it, which is something I personally wouldn’t want my readers to do. Anyhow, that doesn’t take anything away from the impact of this important book. It raises many worthy questions and conversations which we should probably be having.

Then again, we’re a little distracted these days in our convenient, technologically-advanced lifestyles. Hopefully it won’t take a cataclysmic disaster for us to realize how good we’ve got it.

The Road Cormac McCarthy Review by Joseph Gonzales