The Road is one of those books that gets talked about over a hot dog at a friends barbeque or in the pub. For most people I spoke to it was the first time they had come across Cormac McCarthy and the Pulitzer Prize and the critic’s recommendations wowed them. But one friend persuaded me to read McCarthy before the paperback of The Road came out so there was an odd route to The Road.
But it was a route worth commenting on because without reading No Country for Old Men and the Border Trilogy it would have left me at a distinct disadvantage. There are several things it takes time getting used to with McCarthy. The first is the lack of quote marks and the lack of chapter headings. The second is that you become acquainted not only with his themes – a dying age and the end of the cowboys – but also with his ability to deliver shocking violence.
Come to this without any of that understanding and it might well have forced some people off. I know of at least one person who did not stick with it and that is a shame because this is exactly what great fiction is all about. It is epic in its ambition to paint a picture of a world that is post apocalyptic and its last few inhabitants. It is focused in its characterisation basing almost the entire book on the relationship of a father and son. Plus it is clear in its message – kill the planet and something dreadful awaits us all.
The story is on the one hand quite simple with a father and son walking the road to the coast, a couple of hundred miles, dragging all they can in a cart. They search for food and other tools on the way, risking running into other survivors in the process. They stumble across a group of cannibals and almost become victims to them. But the wariness the father has all the time leads them finally to the coast. There the end comes for the father as he dies of some sort of tuberculosis type condition leaving the boy to the care of another family.
Throughout there are musings on God – does one exist in that sort of world – the past and crucially life and death. If there is nothing but death eventually then why not end it now – a choice taken by the boy’s mother. At the end of The Road you are left with numerous questions. It is surely for that reason that this book has been so highly regarded. In a world where global warming and nuclear weapons – just two ways both long and short – that we could destroy ourselves, dominate the headlines few things make you think as much as this. By painting a vivid picture of what it could be like if it all goes wrong this book should sound the alarm for all of us.
Version read – Picador paperback