Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright. He has written ten novels, spanning the Southern Gothic, Western, and Post-apocalyptic genres. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for The Road.
"A work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away."
"The Road is not a science fiction, not an allegory, and not a critique of the way we live now, or of the-way-we-might-live-if-we-keep-on-living-the-way-we-live-now. It poses a simpler question, more taxing for the imagination and far closer to the primary business of fiction-making: what would this world without people look like, feel like? These questions McCarthy answers magnificently."
"It is in the audacity and single-mindedness with which The Road extends the metaphor of a father s guilt and heartbreak over abandoning his son to shift for himself in a ruined, friendless world that The Road finds its great power to move and horrify the reader."
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is post-apocalyptic, but, as has been exhaustively noted, it’s largely unconcerned with the cause of the world’s end. In this sense it breaks from the tradition of dystopia as political and cautionary. Though it earned McCarthy a spot on The Guardian’s 2008 “50 people who could save the planet” list, with environmentalist George Manbiot heralding it as maybe “the most important environmental book ever” (sorry, Rachel Carson), The Road is not actually a political novel so much as it is interpersonal, familial.
The novel’s stark prose and barren landscape are an ideal milieu for meditation on human relationships. (There really might be something to McCarthy’s bold dismissal of all but the barest punctuation as “weird little marks” that “blot the page.” In his interview with Oprah, he went on to say that “if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” Is it disrespectful to note this in a parenthetical?) The Road keeps closest to its heart the relationship of parent and child — specifically, father and son. In the first pages the unnamed or nameless father looks out across the wasteland that is the present and says of his son, “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” His words are amplified by the setting but are hardly bound to it: blasphemy and all, such a sentence might be said by a parent even before the apocalypse.
If the book were just about this aspect of the parent-child bond — if it were merely an invocation of the bond’s ineffable depth and the parent’s singular desire for or obligation to sacrifice for the child — the work might be overly precious. But McCarthy is masterful, and so the portrait of this father and son is rich and nuanced. It’s a dark book about desperate circumstances, but the mundane persists, and exchanges like this are among The Road’s finest:
What is it, Papa?
Morels. It’s morels.
They’re a kind of mushroom.
Can you eat them?
Yes. Take a bite.
Are they good?
Take a bite.
The boy smelled the mushroom and bit into it and stood chewing. He looked at his father. These are pretty good, he said.
And then there is the far darker side. It’s not just survival at stake: it’s also integrity and human dignity. The father advises his son on how to use their revolver to kill himself if need be, rather than be taken by one of the roving bands of cannibals. In an act of love distinct from and perhaps beyond self-sacrifice, the father asks himself whether he could, if the situation required it — if the gun didn’t fire — kill his son to save his son. “Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock?” he asks himself. “Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be?”
Maybe the most significant aspect of parenthood here is the parent as moral educator. The novel’s arc follows the father’s slow death, foreshadowed early on by his persistent cough. His illness, the dangerous terrain, and the real threat posed by other human beings all make most urgent the issue of what the father will impart to his son before he passes. The imperative is stronger, too, in a world devoid of society, a world in which even the family is reduced to its barest form (the boy has no siblings and his mother has long since killed herself). But ultimately this is an issue centrally important to any parent: What can and will you do to make your child a good person?
But the education — as educations tend to — goes both ways. The son is deeply uncomfortable that they must sometimes leave other good guys behind, and he eventually coerces his father into giving some food to an old, nearly blind man. Though the father appears to do so only begrudgingly, it clearly affects him. When he and the old man discuss why the boy wanted to stop when the father did not, the old man suggests that he might believe in God. “He’ll get over it,” the old man assures him. “No he wont,” says the father, seeing something beautiful.
Because it is so brutal, The Road has been called unsentimental. Certainly it’s not maudlin, pat, cheaply tear-jerky, or trite, but it is sentimental — and tender and hopeful — and that’s largely because of its brutality: the honesty, the way the gray nothingness of this future illumines the sacredness of this bond. I don’t mean to diminish the weight of the tragedy in this novel by claiming it is as much about parents and children as it is about disaster, beauty, and grace. I mean to do the opposite: to say that human relationships — here, parent and child — are loaded with this gravity, sanctity, and light. The Road brings this forth: it does not construct, but reveals.