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.
I 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.