About a month ago I picked up The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I had come across a book review of it while writing a paper on another post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker, a little over a year ago and noticed that the movie was coming out, the second adaptation of a McCarthy book in a very short period of time, the previous being No Country for Old Men. This movie ad, featuring Viggo Mortensen, brought this altogether and I figured that it was high time I explored what ol’ Cormac had to offer. It has been an awful long time since I experienced a darker novel that presented a bleaker interpretation of the nature of mankind.
The book follows a nameless man and his son as they push a cart filled with their belongings down the namesake of the novel. The vision of the end of the world that McCarthy offers is that survival is found in one of two ways, luck or cannibalism. Our protagonists depend on luck, making them the “good guys” (more on that later).
Critics have viewed this novel as a quest toward redemption. The nameless quality of the father suggest that he takes on the role of an Everyman, embodying the qualities that we all hope reflect our own benevolence and protective survival instincts to shelter our loved ones. Redemption is shown through the efforts of the man and boy to survive. Whatever failings of our kind lead us to the destruction of our world, the human spirit prevails in a select few representatives that show we really should continue existing.
The catastrophe that has befallen the world also remains nameless. The only mention of the cause of the world’s current conditions is “[a] long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (52), leaving open the wide range of possible interpretations from nuclear fallout, natural disaster, or McCarthy’s interpretation of the scene from Revelations.
What is left after this event is, essentially, nothingness. The man and his son walk on in a landscape covered in ash, freezing cold and devoid of all signs of life. One of the things that left the most impact on me was the absence in the novel. Light struggled to get through the haze, the wilderness showed no evidence of wildlife, even the scavenging rat or cockroach, legendary for being the sole survivor of such an extinction, were noticeably missing. The only living things were other humans, which the man went out of his way to avoid, as they usually brought with them the worst. It is through these encounters that McCarthy’s disturbing visions of what mankind is capable of shines through.
Beginning with the threat of murder and insinuations of the desperate measures undertaken to survive, to the most depraved displays of cannibalism. The man and his boy come across all varieties of such, including those that ‘farm’ their food (though with what raises further questions) by sectioning and eating pieces of them, and, the most disturbing image, the remains of a roasted newborn. Pardon for the graphic nature here, but at my hand the scenes are far less articulate. McCarthy’s writing is of the most attractive kind, that which sows enough detail to create understanding but leaves enough ambiguity for the reader’s imagination to take over and fill in the sordid details.
Those that do not resort to cannibalism, which seem to include only the man and his boy, must search for canned food. The novel seems set far enough into this post-apocalyptic world that the typical sources, such as supermarkets and 7-11s, have already been overrun. Absence is found here to. Anything that may have helped the characters is not there to be used; guns and ammunition, cars, gasoline, all gone. They must depend on luck to track down any stashes of canned food and items that will aid their progress. Is the commentary then that for humans to survive without the trappings of civilization or society we are willing to devolve to the same creatures that we otherwise loath? Rats and cockroaches are both well documented cannibals in desparate situations. Put into this desperate environment, humans then do not bond together to form a societal unioning to help, but eat each other in a selfish fight for survival.
Selfish to survive, or selfish to avoid the hardships that come with survival. The man’s wife and boy’s mother decides to leave them both for a new found “lover.” She does not see the three of them as survivors, to her they are :the walking dead in a horror film” (55). During her long explanation for leaving, she mentions the man’s inability to protect them forever: “Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us… [t]hey are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont [sic] face it” (56). Throughout this dialogue and throughout the novel, the “they” she refers to is ambiguous. If it is the cannibals that she refers to, they hardly constitute a cohesive unit that the three of them must face, but rather from the survivors point of view, anyone that is not them is against them, creating an us versus they mentality. Her presentation of a “they” that must be face in order to survive, does create an image of a cohesive wall of resistance, not of a series of pocketed, independent groups who are after the same thing as her, survival. She leaves them, without word to her son, and literally walks into her new lover, death by venturing into the cold.
The suicide of his mother is the first in a line of events that cause the boy to question hope and the concept of God. For the boy, his father is the figure that dominates all and allows life to happen with the successful foraging of food. Without his father, there is no hope for the boy. As such, the only way that he has been taught to point the gun that they carry with them seems to be at himself. It would be a fairly direct argument to equate the man with god, as he provides the boy with everything needed to survive. These necessities are not pulled out of thin air, but, as far as the boy is concerned, they may as well have been. This causes an odd paternalistic relationship, in which the boy is necessarily dependent on his father. Readers are given no background as to what the man did before the apocalypse, but he displays a range of skills and knowledge that aid the two in their journey.
In their scrounging, the man and the boy come across a beached boat. On the boat, among other supplies, they find a flare gun and shoot it off. This seems the one bit of levity between the two. Again, an event brought about by permission of the father. For one who had been so vigilant at staying unseen and out of harms way, this display goes far and away beyond the safe displays that got them this far. Is it that the two retained enough humanity to desire fun and take advantage of a source of amusement? Do “good guys” still want to have fun?
The boy asks his father a number of time if they are the “good guys.” The man reaffirms this position of morality, even though they must make decisions that are, at best, morally ambiguous. They do share food with Ely, a wanderer who proves friendly. During the time they are at the boat, the flare caught the attention of a man who robs them of their supplies. The man and boy chase him down, take their belongings back and the man’s clothes. While they did not kill him outright, by leaving him with nothing in an environment that is freezing and without food that is so hard to come by, it is essentially a death sentence. Is the only thing that makes them the good guys the fact that they have managed to survive without eating people? Is this enough to remain the good guys?
Aside from the introspections provided above, there is something that remains a complete mystery to me. In the very first section of the novel, a creature is described but we do not encounter such description again. I feel like I missed something huge, especially with such a detailed description of “a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders… pale and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow…[t]he brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell” (3-4). I would love an explanation or, barring something definitive, ideas as to what this alludes to or represents so very early on.
*EDIT* Being the first entry in hopefully many, please accept as it is: part summation, part commentary, part critical, wholly filled with half-explored ideas. I clearly did not start with a thesis as such, but will get more direction through comments and feedback. As a book club, most of the fun should come from conversations and input by members. I never intended this to be a didactic forum, only asynchonus.