The Road is the story of a man and his son as they make their way through a country that has been turned into a scorched and desolate wasteland. The story follows as they do their best to survive the harsh climates and the barbarous humans the unnamed apocalypse left behind. Day by day, they struggle to walk through the ashes of civilization and try their best to cling to their humanity, when all they have is each other -- and sometimes even that isn’t enough.
Once upon a time, someone must have told Cormac McCarthy that a good writer should put his characters through hell, and McCarthy totally ran away with it. Because I honestly don’t think I’ve ever suffered so vicariously from a book before. Reading it was exhausting -- even during the few moments when the protagonists were happy, I knew it wouldn’t last long and I’d spend those few pages dreading the minute everything came crashing down. They’re never fully happy, they’re never fully safe, and you as the reader are never going to be able to chill out with this book. Leave it behind on your way to the beach.
There’s no way to review this lightly. The text may be simple and spare, but what it tells you is so heavy you have to put the book down every now and then to relieve the dread. Even the way the prose is written amplified my discomfort -- the way McCarthy would narrate every action to the smallest detail (like when the man would be Macgyvering tools together, McCarthy would explain every single move he made). The text is like a leafless tree with branches splitting off into tinier and tinier branches. You’d have to squint to see the spark of life, but it’d be there.
Maybe it’s meant to tie into the overall themes of bleak stagnation in the story. There’s not much in the way of hope in the book -- they’re headed for the coastline but even the man admits that he doesn’t expect anything to be there. What we see of the remains of humanity horrifies and depresses in alternation. Father and son never quite come to an understanding because they never actually hash it out. Protecting his son is the man’s sole reason for living but because of that the boy is never really given room to grow. There’s a disconnect between them that never seems to be breached -- he likens his son an alien sometimes, and thinks that his son must see him as a figure from an entirely different world. The boy also spends most of the book terrified and weeping, unable to take care of himself, and the ending doesn’t seem to promise much growth either.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a bleaker book (and I probably wouldn’t want to), but there’s just something about The Road that’s compelling in its emotional starvation.