A beautiful blend of prose and poetry,The Road is the story and the intricately painted image of a post-apocalyptic world in which hope is no longer a luxury.
The world is as dark as the ash falling from the sky. The earth is scorched and dead. A man and his son are traveling along a road on their way south because they don’t think they can survive another winter in the north. There are few survivors of whatever has destroyed the Earth as we know it, and the protagonists have reason to fear the others. Cannibalistic blood gangs travel the roads, too, in search of prey. Almost any place that might once have had food and clean water has been ransacked years before. In place of a long-absent wife and mother, the duo have only each other and the specter of death to acccompany them. They don’t know what they will find at the southern coast. They only know they must carry on, “each the other world’s entire.”
To say that this is a sad story would be terribly off the mark. It is bleak and it is dire, but McCarthy takes us right into the heart of the darkness and gives us ample time to adjust to it. As the protagonists have. This world is all the boy has ever known, and that is true for us, too. McCarthy doesn’t expose us to the pain of transition, the pain to which the father grows ever more numb over time. Instead he invites us to vicariously live for that which is absolutely essential to the human spirit – love, hope – and to root for the characters as they fight to find and maintain the fuels that are essential to the human body. McCarthy gives us life in its purest form, and reminds us how vulnerable everything else in the world is.
I liken this story to the section of It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey gets to see how his hometown would be without him in it. If you take the basic idea of that part of the story, expand it to the length of an entire novel and broaden the theme so it applies, not just to a small-town banker, but to the entirety of the human race, then you’re on your way into McCarthy’s world. What would we be without the comforts of civilization? Well, some of us would be monsters – openly, without the shame that being a monster within a stable society brings. But some of us would still have the ability to love, to show compassion and mercy. These things are worth rooting for. It is upon these traits that humanity bases its justification for society. Not our intelligence, our ability to amass wealth and power, nor on our insatiable taste for comfort. Just as we have no interest in seeing Potterville succeed in place of an economically inferior Bedford Falls, we have no desire to watch civilization be rebuilt in such a world as in The Road unless the good guys win. We are reminded what we are supposed to value in the human race. McCarthy shows us just exactly why the man and his boy are “carrying the fire”.
The Road has some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever read, which is a real feat considering the wasted world McCarthy is describing. The story is compelling and the relationship at its focal point moving. Its lesson – if McCarthy even meant for the story to have a lesson – is poignant, especially in these times of economic recession. We must take joy and find peace in that which always has real value. Where we love and are loved, where we find reason to carry the fire, no matter the state of the world around us, there is our hope.