Even if you’ve never read Cormac McCarthy, there’s a chance that you’re familiar with his work: No Country for Old Men, a 2007 Coen Bros. film, was a film adaptation of a McCarthy novel; All the Pretty Horses was a 2000 adaptation of his 1992 novel. Both Blood Meridian and The Road are either in production as film or scheduled for production. In short, Hollywood seems to love Cormac McCarthy, but I have yet to understand why, since his books are all essentially dark, existentialist works that depict the world as entirely bereft of goodness and hope.
The Road is the story of a nameless father and son, walking south along a long road in a postapocalyptic world. McCarthy has robbed the context of any specificity: no names, no places, no causes, no history. I get the feeling that this anonymity is supposed to make it more gripping and applicable to anyone who might read it. Environment disaster? Nuclear holocaust? Plague? All we’re told is that everything is covered in ash.
This dangerous world is populated by various and sundry unsavory characters: cannibals, pederasts, cannibal-pederasts, and roving, Mad Max-style gangs of pipe-wielding hoodlums.
These kinds of things are few and far between: the more pressing concerns of our protagonists are cold, hunger, and the lack of decent footwear. In the meantime, the audience is treated to the tense but loving relationship between the father and son. Early on, we learn that the wife/mother committed suicide when this apocalypse occurred, epitomized as Selfishness; by contrast, the anonymous father refused to kill himself or the boy, believing that life is good enough to fight and even suffer for.
The existential quandary that McCarthy describes is this: the father explains to his son that they are the “good guys,” and it is for this reason they must press on, avoiding the hordes of “bad guys;” however, the father routinely expresses a callous disregard for other travelers, his (1) suspicion or (2) self-preservation getting the better of him. McCarthy juxtaposes the caring but wholly circumscribed father with the voice of the innocent son, who wants to help people. This kind of irony isn’t—or shouldn’t be—ultimately lost to the reader.
Reading The Road is an almost unbearably bleak experience; imagine a Baudelaire poem that’s almost 300 pages long, and you’ll get some idea of the crushing despair inherent to the text. I have no idea what McCarthy is like in real life, but the worlds he narrates are evil through and through, containing perhaps one or two innocent souls fighting against a tide of death, destruction, and despair. I will say that the book has some measure of a happy ending, though you can bet your britches, given the author, that it’s not “And they all lived happily ever after.”
McCarthy won a Pulitzer for The Road; clearly, it’s not a book without philosophical or literary merit. There are things of beauty to be found within the ash and dust of his writing. In fact, it brings to mind Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz in some of its subtexts. Read it, but have something light and fluffy handy afterward, or you’ll end up feeling like crap.