The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

The Road (book)

I had never read anything by Cormac McCarthy before picking up The Road. The only indirect familiarity I had with his work was seeing the movie version of No Country For Old Men.

I liked this book. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his young son (who are never named) wandering around trying to survive, some years after the breakdown of society and the death of most of the population.

It is told from the point of view of the father. So all you learn is what he experiences and happens to think of. Any facts about the current conditions and about how things got to this point are dished out haphazardly, incompletely, and not necessarily in chronological order, because they come from his stream of consciousness.

This device is actually quite effective in maintaining suspense and reader interest. You get the immediate experiences and emotions very vividly, which is good, but I was always at least as focused on the tantalizing clues offered about the “big picture.”

I’m now going to try to sketch out that background, that context, as best I can without consulting any sources about the book. That means I’m bound to get some of it wrong—I’m sure there are some relevant tidbits from the book I didn’t catch at the time, others I misinterpreted, and others I have since forgotten—but I’m curious what I can piece together.

The narrator is married. He and his wife feel and hear a series of massive explosions going off in the distance. Shortly after that—I don’t think it’s specified how soon—they see out the window that the nearest city is engulfed in flames.

Probably it’s a nuclear war, but that isn’t specified. Nor is much more said about the time right after the initial event. We don’t know—and we don’t know if the narrator knows—who attacked whom, or how much of the world was affected, or what the total casualties were, or what if any government remained or what it did or tried to do.

At the time of the initial explosions, the wife rubs her belly in a way that almost certainly implies she’s pregnant. Presumably she’s pregnant with the boy in the story. I’m almost sure that’s implied, but I don’t want to say it’s a hundred percent. Seeing how much of a struggle it is later for the man to survive with an old enough boy to be largely functional and actually help, I struggle a bit picturing him doing so with an infant, if she gave birth after this all started. So for a while I imagined maybe the boy was three or something at the time (but certainly no more than that, since he has zero memories of the old world and must rely on what his father tells him about it), and she was pregnant with a different child that didn’t survive long.

But no, like I say, presumably the implication is that she was pregnant with the boy.

At some point early on—I don’t know if it’s a month later, six months later, two years later, or what—after everything has broken down horribly, she decides death is preferable to such a life and kills herself.

She does not admire her husband for choosing to go on, and doesn’t even think his motives are all that pure. I don’t remember exactly how she words it (in his memory of their last exchange), but I think she interprets it as being more about his ego and wanting to see himself as a protector and such, than about any genuine commitment to their son. She says if they fight on, “they” will just come and kill him and rape her and the boy, so it’s better to end it now on their own terms.

So she does. But he (and the boy) do not. Though he does make the decision that he will kill the boy before letting him fall into the clutches of bad guys, and even trains the boy in how to use a gun for suicide in case he’s not there to kill him himself.

The main narrative takes place quite a few years later, though I’m pretty sure it’s not specified precisely how many. Judging from his mental and physical level of development, I picture the boy as about 10. I certainly could be off on that—he could be 6, he could be 15—but he strikes me as about 10. And trying to gauge his age is probably the best way to figure out how much time has passed since the initial cataclysm.

(The man himself, by the way, doesn’t know precisely what year it is. He only knows approximately how many years have passed and what time of year it is now—late fall, cold but not as cold as it’s going to be.)

There is ash everywhere, and enough in the air that the survivors at least sometimes breathe through makeshift masks. It sounds like the climate has changed, perhaps in the “nuclear winter” manner that some scientists have predicted would be the result of a sufficiently large nuclear exchange. The sun is rarely if ever visible due to all the junk in the air. It’s probably colder than before, though not knowing their exact location or the exact time of year, one can’t say for sure. There seems to be precipitation every day or almost every day.

There are very few non-human living things left. There’s an absence of birds and the “ordinary” things you’d normally see and take little notice of. Most or all of the trees and plant life they come across is dead. There is no indication any longer of any agriculture or of many if any livestock animals being left, which may or may not be solely due to the climate and environmental issues; the lack of any social stability where people could plant something and be around to harvest it could be a factor as well.

So people subsist on canned goods and other such things that are a decade or whatever old. That is, there’s no sign the available food is being in any way replenished; it’s just fewer and fewer people fighting over the dwindling finite amount of stuff that’s been around since the time of the war.

It isn’t specified if the entire world is like what is described in this book, or whether there might be, say, functioning societies in the Southern Hemisphere or elsewhere that were spared major damage. I think the safest guess is that it’s like this all over. The climate changes wouldn’t be restricted to just where the bombs fell, and if there were still societies in decent shape, one thinks a decade or however long it’s been would be long enough for them to put together some sort of aid or rescue programs for the survivors in the countries that were devastated.

But at least in the areas of the United States the narrator is familiar with, there are very, very few people left alive. It’s a novelty to encounter anyone.

What few people remain are apparently mostly acting in a predictably Hobbesian fashion. The narrator refers to the bad guys at one point as “road agents,” a quasi-official sounding term from which we can maybe infer there was at some point some effort to set up a civil authority—maybe a warlord type thing—and they’re what’s left. They are glimpsed at a distance in the book, moving about in packs. To me, one of the more chilling things the narrator observes—and with which he’s already familiar, so it’s a phenomenon that has existed for at least awhile—is that they are using human slaves as the equivalent of beasts of burden to pull their carts of supplies around with them.

They, and other desperate people, also practice cannibalism on the few other survivors they come across.

There’s also a passing mention of “communes,” which may be different folks but which also sounds ominous in that the narrator infers from someone’s missing some of his fingers that he must have come from a “commune.”

Maybe the “road agents” are the more unambiguously bad guys, and the people who’ve formed into communes have been driven to use some extreme punishments and such to try to maintain order in extreme circumstances, but aren’t as clearly evil through and through. But that’s just a surmise.

The (very few) people they encounter who are not affiliated with such a group are either also dangerous and desperate as free agents, or too pathetic and near death to constitute a threat.

Though the man talks a lot about the “good guys” that he and the boy are hoping to find, that seems to be a largely mythical or theoretical category of people. There is no indication that at any point in all the years since the wife died it has ever been anything other than the man and the boy together. No other family or friends, no group of still humane survivors for them to become a member of, no temporary companions who accompany them for a few months or years before dying—always just the two of them.

Where they are is not clear. The United States I assume, but I mean more specifically than that.

They are on a journey (on foot—there are few if any functioning vehicles left by this time) at least partly southward, seeking a warmer climate and seeking the ocean. (There’s no more than minimal hope that it’ll be any better there, but they’ve probably exhausted all possible sources of food anywhere near where they are, and minimal hope is better than none. Really I think it’s more just a matter that the man believes for psychological reasons they need to be doing something, going somewhere, making “progress” of some sort, so they’re on this journey. Not to mention for literary purposes the author needs them to be doing something.) Early on they are crossing mountains to get where they’re going.

From these clues, for a long time I pictured them in, say, Colorado, and headed for southern California. I was thinking maybe they’d lived in the Denver area, and that was the city they were watching burn out the window when the bombs fell.

But there is a later mention that a stately house they pass by would have held slaves earlier in American history. And there may have been one or more other things too that told me they were somewhere in the South. So from that point on I figured that they were going through the Appalachians or some Eastern mountains, and that the (bleak, desolate, cold, deserted) ocean beach they eventually reach is maybe in South Carolina or Georgia or somewhere like that, on the Atlantic coast.

Still just guessing though.

Their day-to-day activity really is reduced to the bare basics for survival. They’re constantly looking for canned goods that somehow have not already been taken from ransacked homes and stores by all the people who came before them. (Water doesn’t seem to be quite as constant an issue, though one would think it would be.) Also clothes (especially shoes), blankets or other items to protect from the cold and perpetual rain, and any miscellaneous items that may come in handy (like a lighter, first aid equipment, etc.) They have a gun, but almost no bullets, so it’s only to be used in the extremest of circumstances. And of course they’re looking to avoid “bad guys” and find “good guys.”

And that’s pretty much how the whole book plays out, just struggling constantly to try to make it to the next day, and to continue this probably pointless journey to the ocean. Always in discomfort—starving, desperately cold, whatever. The only comfort being the relative one of being in slightly less discomfort than usual, e.g., the chance to eat some canned peaches after several days with no food.

One thing I thought about a fair amount as I read this book is that I know we’re supposed to see this as an extraordinary triumph of the human spirit, as this incredibly inspiring tale of clinging to life however bad that life is, but I have to admit I’m actually closer to the wife’s position. I don’t have anything remotely close to an unconditional love of life, nor a belief that I’m obligated to or that people who do are thereby more admirable.

I’m really never all that far from suicide even in response to just “regular” bad stuff, let alone a total breakdown of society and the kind of relentless misery they’re experiencing. I’m almost sure I would have checked out when the wife did, if not long before.

I don’t know that it’s “weakness” so much as different values. Like I say, I’m not convinced there’s some overriding moral obligation to survive as long as you can, regardless of the state of the world or the state of your life.

Of course I don’t know what I’d do in such extreme circumstances. This kind of gripping, extreme book certainly gives one occasion to think about such things, but I can’t speculate with any great confidence. But I know on a gut level I couldn’t fully buy into the message of the book that their struggle to survive is heroic and to be emulated.

It’s interesting thinking too, though, about the other, related, theme of the book, which is a celebration of the love between these two characters. Whatever one thinks of whether it would be worth it to survive in such circumstances, I believe we’re meant to be in awe of the connection between the man and the boy, the way they rely on each other, the way the man is willing to make any sacrifice to give his son some chance to grow up and perhaps even see a better world one day.

And that part I was mostly on board for. Until the very end of the book. I don’t know if I’m reading too much into this, and I don’t know what the author intended, but I actually felt that this very message that seems to have been the main point of the book is cast into doubt by the ending.

Obviously I’m giving all kinds of spoilers here for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but the man dies almost at the very end. The boy is nearly immediately taken in by a seemingly good group of people. (You can’t completely rule out they’re going to eat him or whatever, but certainly there’s a strong implication that they’re good people and that this is a “happy ending” of sorts.)

But think about that. For seven years, ten years, eleven years, or whatever it’s been, for all this time searching for “good guys” they can connect with, they never found anyone. Then five minutes after the man dies, there are “good guys” available to help the boy.

What this tells me is maybe the man wasn’t looking so hard after all. Maybe there were opportunities all along (you would think there would be, that people would desperately come together seeking “strength in numbers” against the elements and the “road agents” and such), but that in his heart of hearts that’s not what the man wanted. Maybe he wanted it to be a two-man show. Maybe he needed to feel needed, to feel like his heroic efforts were the only thing that could keep his son alive. Maybe he didn’t want to have his contribution watered down by having it be part of a group effort, even if that’s what would be best for his son.

And if that’s the case, he’s not such a positive, admirable character after all. If that’s the case, he’s even selfish at a certain level. If that’s the case, maybe the wife wasn’t so far off in her assessment that his motives for insisting they not commit suicide were not so noble.

Like I say, I don’t know if that kind of ambiguity as to the character of the man and his relationship with the boy is intentionally introduced by the author at the end, or I’m just way out in left field here. But that ending did kind of take me aback in that respect.

Overall my assessment of this book is highly favorable. It raises interesting moral and psychological issues, and the context is certainly thought-provoking. The fact that as a reader you’re kept in the dark about so much is effective in keeping you involved and curious.

If I could change one thing—and I know some people will groan at this—I’d like more to have been revealed about the world situation. That is, the war, the aftermath, the number and condition of the survivors, etc. Not necessarily from the beginning—like I say, I’m fine with the literary device of doling out tidbits of information little by little along the way—but just by the end of the book I’d like to have known more of that stuff.

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