If I’d read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road earlier in life, I’m sure the experience would have been affecting. But the story was particularly harrowing to read now, as the father of a young son.
The Road features an unnamed man and boy traversing an “ashen scabland” in the aftermath of some unspecified cataclysm. It might have been an asteroid strike or a nuclear exchange; McCarthy only hints at the trigger. What matters is that ash is everywhere, veiling the sun and cooling the globe. And in this grim vision of the future, humanity has plunged into a moral winter as well as a physical one.
Robbed of its ability to grow crops, civilization crumbled fast and hard, leaving “murder … everywhere upon the land, the world … largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell.” In the countryside, bloodcults set “balefires on distant ridges” and harness slaves to wagons trailed by “catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars.”
Survivors like the man and the boy subsist by scavenging, too. It’s not easy. Obvious sources of canned goods—a store, a pantry—have already been picked over, rifled for every scrap of nonperishable nutrition. But the man is crafty enough to sniff out hidden morsels, and on those rare occasions when he and the boy discover a surplus, they house it in the grocery cart they push down the roads and highways that remain passable, shuffling onward in their journey toward the coast. No certainty of salvation awaits them there; the man has only a vague sense that things might be better by the ocean. His one true direction—the North Star he steers by now that ambient ash has obscured the night sky—is that the boy must be protected.
Much of the book reads like a primer in the mechanics of post-apocalyptic survival: the man starts campfires in ingenious ways, improvises the tools he needs, and generally MacGyvers his way through a waking nightmare. McCarthy’s writing style lends itself to these sorts of procedural inventories, often stringing several sentence fragments together to form lists and rapid-fire descriptions. Thematically, his sparse punctuation—certain contractions don’t get apostrophes; dialogue lacks quotation marks—contributes to an overall sense of a fraying society with little use for conventions of the past. And the absence of chapter breaks reinforces the seemingly endless nature of the man and the boy’s trek, a bleak pilgrimage that stretches on like the titular road they follow.
But the narrative never feels monotonous. It’s interspersed with tense encounters and bursts of dark poetry such as the excerpt I quoted above and this gem from the same section of the book: “The soft talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor … and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”
All this was masterful (if brutal). Yet what hit me hardest was the thought of trying to parent a child in such a setting.
Part of it is the imagery—the haunting visuals McCarthy creates and then exposes the boy to. “I don’t think you should see this,” the man says at one point. (Quotation marks added by me for clarity’s sake.) “What you put in your head is there forever?” asks the boy. “Yes.” “It’s okay Papa.” “It’s okay?” “They’re already there.”
Shielding your child from all evil is an impossibility, though. Providing them food and shelter is a fundamental responsibility—and the boy is almost always hungry and cold, his “laddered ribs” shivering against the man at night while they huddle under a plastic tarp as gray rain drizzles down. It’s gut-wrenching to imagine trading places with them.
But I think what really got to me was a simpler horror: the accumulated weight of the boy repeating variations of, “I’m scared. I’m really scared.” Sometimes just when he hears a noise; sometimes after the man asks him to stay behind while he explores the next foreboding building and reminds the boy to lie still in the grass and wait like a fawn. And in every instance, the man is unable to reassure the boy in a way either of them believes.
I’m not a doomsday prepper—I don’t think the events McCarthy presents in The Road are likely to occur. And I appreciate what I took to be one of the themes: that in times of peril, you may not be able to trust everyone, but you have to trust someone.
But what I’ll remember most is that, after reading the last page, this man felt compelled to hug his boy.
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