Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

The Road is Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-​​winning 2006 novel about a man and his son sur­viv­ing in a post-​​apocalyptic dystopia. A spare, nerve-​​wracking, often fright­en­ing tale, it’s the sort of book you can’t put down but want to, lest the images invade your night­mares. But in the end, though the plot is relent­lessly bleak, McCarthy is telling a valu­able story about the power of moral stead­fast­ness in the face of dan­ger and starvation.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthyI didn’t choose to read The Road. That is, some­one else in my book club chose it, and I went along with the choice because That’s What You Do in Book Club. McCarthy has a rep­u­ta­tion for grip­ping, vio­lent works, not nor­mally Yours Truly’s cup of tea. (He wrote No Country for Old Men, the book that inspired the 2007 movie—I haven’t par­taken of either of those.) I warned my fel­low book-​​clubbers that I was liable to stop the book if it got too gory. I was ready to stop halfway. But after I looked up the syn­op­sis on Wikipedia, I was sat­is­fied that I wouldn’t totally hate the rest of the book, so I fin­ished it, and I’m glad I did.

The novel’s name­less pro­tag­o­nists jour­ney along a road in an unrec­og­niz­able America where noth­ing lives or grows. Nothing, that is, except for the humans who can get to the dwin­dling food stores left behind in aban­doned homes and the occa­sional fall­out shel­ter. And the heinous gangs of brig­ands who sur­vive through cannibalism.

One reviewer believed that The Road was “the most impor­tant envi­ron­men­tal book ever,” because its bleak vision of the future could stir read­ers to avoid eco­log­i­cal holo­caust. That’s good and well, and per­haps even true, but to me it misses the point. The ashen set­ting that McCarthy so aptly por­trayed is just that, a set­ting. The man and boy’s resolve to sur­vive, and to sur­vive with­out eat­ing other humans—the barest min­i­mum of civ­i­liza­tion, and prob­a­bly the most essen­tial instance of the golden rule—are more pow­er­ful “teach­ing moments.” In his review, Ron Charles sug­gested that, despite a McCarthy’s weak­ness in depict­ing women (“Most middle-​​school boys have a more nuanced under­stand­ing of the oppo­site sex than McCarthy demon­strates in his fic­tion, and he does noth­ing to alter that impres­sion here.”), the novel’s lessons about “innate good­ness” and the “sim­ple beauty of this hero’s love for his son” are “profound.”

I agree. The book engaged me and pro­voked deep thoughts about liv­ing in extremis. Is sur­vival worth­while when the world is bar­ren and most evey­one you meet is a sav­age bar­bar­ians? Are any prin­ci­ples bind­ing when sur­vival is on the line? Do prin­ci­ples mat­ter when there is no soci­ety to speak of? McCarthy implies his own answers to these ques­tions through the pro­tag­o­nists, while show­ing that the cal­cu­lus of prin­ci­pled sur­vival can be harsh and unpleas­ant. If you have a strong-​​enough stom­ach for that sort of book, I rec­om­mend The Road.