This is the most depressing novel I've ever read. That doesn't mean it was bad, per se. But certainly this is worth noting. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a book set in the most horrifyingly depicted post-apocalyptic wasteland you can conceive of. McCarthy uses an epic command of description and imagery to show us a picture straight out of hell. The skies are caked with ash and emptiness. The forests are dead, crumpled, and gone. All wildlife is long since dead. The seas froth with gray refuse and teem with pollution. 99% of humanity has already perished, and what remains are dirty, emaciated refugees and grungy, hostile cannibals. The main characters are a father and his son, and you follow their journey as they trek through this hellish nightmare that used to be America.
If this sounds horrible to you, then I advise you just stop reading this review, as this isn't a pleasant novel. Actually, I take that back. Who wouldn't find that description horrible? But I'm, perhaps, glossing over what turned out to make the book a page turner and ultimately very good.
Safety vs Empathy
The man and his son (you never hear their names) make for some of the most intensely depicted characters ever written. Within a page and a half of the book, you are deeply attached to their characters. You want them to live, more than anything in the world. And yet you understand how impossible that seems to be in this horrible scenario. Part of what makes their characters so powerful is just the facts; what father wouldn't be insanely protective of their child in this nightmare? At the same time, though, what father wouldn't think of simply killing himself and the boy? Life in this awful world often does not seem worth it, and this is a struggle that the man must face every trudging step of his journey. Would suicide perhaps be a sweet release here? Questions such as these arise in the novel, and are as powerful as they are terrible.
But what makes these two characters work so well together is their dichotomy of interests. Understandably so, the boy seeks to hold onto some optimism. He still has the capacity to dream of another world, and the father unwittingly supports this through bedtime stories of a time before the nuclear wasteland. But the father is dead focused on making decisions that prioritize safety and common sense above any other concerns. You would think this to be the best thing you could do in such a scenario, and perhaps you are right. But The Road makes the answer to that question difficult; is it better to care for other people despite the dangers or is it best to just look out for yourself and those close to you?
An example here would be the situation that follows: at one point, the man and his boy encounter an old man on the road, near death, and of no danger to them or anyone. The man wants to avoid him; even the possibility of danger is not worth approaching a stranger in this post-apocalyptic land. But the boy wants to greet the old man, to perhaps befriend him, or spare him a bit of food so that he will not die. It is a tricky call. Certainly, the need for survival would dictate avoidance but, in this nightmare, is it worth it to just survive on your own in despair? In the end, all we have is each other. Is charity and compassion an evil when it can affect your own well-being? I came out of the novel leaning in this direction, favoring friendliness and openness above needs of survival and self-interest. But, even now, the answer doesn't seem clear to me. Dilemmas such as these show the power of this novel.
It is hard for me to add more to this review because I don't want to spoil what the man and the boy go through. Needless to say, every step is incredibly intense and your heart follows them every bit of the way. Cormac McCarthy's method of writing helps contribute to this; he writes in sentence fragments and avoids some aspects of grammar like the plague. While initially confusing, I found it actually to be quite easy to jump into how this affected the flow. And it made perfect sense why the author did this. Post-apocalypse and on the brink of starvation and death, the characters don't have time to elaborate in long, detailed thoughts. Instead, the writing is short, brusque and moving. It is perhaps hard to describe, but it works.
However, despite how good this novel was, I don't think I'll ever want to read it again. Hope is an ephemeral thing in this novel and even the end is ambiguous as to whether the characters will turn out okay in the end or not. The Road is a story that will grip you and shake you til you want to cry, but it does have a strange beauty to it. And most of it lies in the humanity of the relationship between a father and his son. From that, if nothing else, does this book get its power.