I have long heard good things about “The Road” but also long avoided it (and the film version) because, despite my love of post-apocalyptica, I’m a bit of a wuss and certain things stick in my head for a long time. In many ways, I was right about “The Road” – certain things from this will stick in my head for a long time! – but I’m glad I gave into the temptation too.
“The Road” is, funnily enough, about a journey through post-apocalyptica. Some years before the story, an unknown catastrophe has destroyed civilisation and rendered the Earth a barren, ashy place, devoid of life save for the handful of desperate humans still scavenging around. The Man and his son, The Boy, as they are known throughout, are making the journey south, to avoid a freezing winter. Very little of their past is mentioned – we don’t know how they had survived up to the starting point of the story or anything of the Man’s life before the end of the world. This gives their roaming an eternal quality – as if it has been going on, and will go on, forever.
“The Road” is, rightly, acclaimed and I was stunned by the variety and immense imagery of language. The whole world is grey by day, coated in the aforementioned ash, and black by night, and yet despite the monotone palette, McCarthy manages to paint a vivid picture of the world around them without becoming repetitive. I hope he dedicated the book to his thesaurus. Equally sparse is the language used between the pair: they are each other’s worlds, far beyond a normal parent/child relationship, and there is a private shorthand that is called back again and again – I found this pulling me further into their relationship.
Like most road trip tales, the story is relatively episodic with stretches of trekking in between. Some of the episodes felt conveniently fortuitous – reaching the absolute lowest ebb then stumbling across a perfectly stocked oasis of an underground bunker – but I am relatively forgiving of coincidences in novels if they further the story/characters (since it would have been a short book if they’d died at the first hurdle). Other episodes were as horrifying as I had worried they would be and I am trying not to think about them again **LA LA LA NOT THINKING**. Mostly though, it is about the passage and their threadbare survival in the wasteland and each fruitless expedition (they’re certainly not always lucky) drove home the futility of it: the Boy might keep the Man alive, by providing “the fire”, but to what end? “South” might be warmer but what was warmth if you starved to death or were killed so that someone else didn’t? For them, the aimless pilgrimage was its own destination but I could see why the woman, the Man’s wife and Boy’s mother, did what she did.
I realised about halfway through what it is that I usually like about post-apocalyptic stories – it is less about the end and more about the beginning (“ap-ositive-alypse” as I called it to John). There didn’t feel like there was any possible new beginning in “The Road” and that was, understandably and purposefully, depressing. But I kept going because I didn’t quite know how it was going to end. One possible ending, the expected (by the characters) one, would be unbearably painful to read yet a happy ending would be jarringly unrealistic: McCarthy went for a middle ground. I found some positivity in it – even though ultimately it was not more positive than any point of the journey – but keeping in mind what I said about coincidences above, I found it a little unnecessarily coincidental: I’d have been happier if the man in the ski jacket had been following them more closely, if he had intervened sooner after The Man’s death (um, spoiler alert) rather than happening to be on the road when the Boy finally decided to leave the woods. (It seemed unlikely that his band – possibly no more than two adults – would spare someone to wander aimlessly to look for the Boy; following closer because they saw the state of The Man would be more believable).
It’s not a cheerful book but it’s a bloody good one.