Maybe the best way to explain how I felt about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road would be to say that I finished it almost two weeks ago, and haven’t yet been able to persuade myself to return it to the library. My house would somehow be diminished without it. I’ll have to let it go at some point, if only to save myself the astronomical late fees, but not yet; not yet.
Though published in 2006, the story feels absolutely appropriate for the climate-conscious 2009: after a devastating, but unnamed worldwide disaster, civilisation as a whole has collapsed. The natural world is burned or burning, and the only colour to be seen is the grey of the ash that covers every surface like deadened snowflakes. Most people are dead; those who are not band together in cannibalistic tribes, keeping prisoners in the cellar to ensure a constant food supply. In the middle of this desolation, a father and son travel together towards the warmer south coast, where with luck the desperately difficult tasks of finding food and staying warm will be easier to manage.
It’s not clear why the south will provide their salvation. The father is tortured by memories of his life before the cataclysm, and by the moral compromises he is forced to make to keep his son alive. ‘In the nights sometimes’, McCarthy tells us, ‘he’d wake in the black and freezing waste out of softly coloured worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun’. We suspect that the south is only an end-point to fix his attention upon; without a purpose, he would lose what little direction he has left. The boy has never known another world. He has to have the phrase ‘as the crow flies’ explained to him, since he’s never seen a crow, or anything else for that matter, fly in the sky. Nevertheless, despite the inhuman horrors he witnesses, he is instinctively kind and generous. He needs to be reassured constantly that they are ‘the good guys’, that they are still ‘carrying the fire’. ‘You’re not the one who has to worry about everything’, his father tells him after a particularly harsh encounter with a would-be thief. The boy responds, ‘Yes I am. I am the one’.
This is nothing less than the truth, because it is the boy who will inherit this blackened world, and will have to make something of it. This is what allows the book to be redemptive and uplifting as well as bleak. McCarthy’s austere, pared-down writing style perfectly fits the reduced and ruined landscape he creates – his imagery, such as his description of the burned dead still in their cars with ‘ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts’, is devastatingly effective – but it also beautifully implies a basic foundation upon which to begin building a new society. You can almost envision the world getting shakily back to its feet, as the boy gets to his and continues down the road alone, carrying the fire to an almost-hopeful future.