Written by American writer Cormac McCarthy and published in 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf, ‘The Road’ is a post-apocalyptic tale of the journey of a father and his young son. It covers a period of several months as they trek across a landscape laid waste by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed the majority of civilization and, in the intervening years, almost all of life on Earth.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Although an excellent story and brilliantly written, make no mistake, this is probably the most depressing and in some parts distressing book you may ever read (I will expand on why this in the recommendation summary).. ..so please take heed.. ..this is not a novel to read if your not prepared or in the right frame of mind!
The book is written in a very unique manner, as are most of McCarthy’s novels.. ..mainly written in the third person, with frequent references to “the father”, “the man”, “the son” or “the boy”.
A father and his son are travelling across a baron, post-apocalyptic landscape, some time after a disastrous, unspecified, event has lead to the total collapse of civilization as we know it. The landscape is ash laden and there is little vegetative or animal life left remaining.
The boy’s mother, who was pregnant with him at the time of the disaster, has already committed suicide after she gave up hope.. ..despite the fathers pleas for her to reconsider. As McCarthy continues to describe the landscape and the behaviour that some of the survivors of the apocalypse now display, it becomes very clear why the mother made her decision.
Food is now a scarcity and as such many of the survivors have taken to cannibalism – scouring the cities, landscape and general detritus for food.. ..any ‘food’ is now worthy of eating.
The father realises that they will not survive the impending harsh winter where they are and decides that they need to travel south, to warmer climes. They travel along empty roads towards the sea, with an old map to guide them. The few meagre possessions they own they carry in rucksacks and on old shopping trolley. Although the man is clearly dying, he protects his son from the relentless exposure, risk of attack and starvation. The man is fully aware of how ill he is, as he regularly coughs up blood. However, he is determined to reach the sea, where his son will have a better chance of survival. He keeps his frailty a secret from his son.
Despite all of these obstacles the father reassures the boy that the are “the good guys” and they are “carrying the fire”.
Their only means of defence is on old revolver, but they only have two rounds for it. During the story the father uses one of the rounds to kill a man, who stumbles across them and poses a significant threat to their lives. Upon killing the man they have to abandon most of their possessions to quickly flee from his companions. We also learn that the father has taught his son how to train the gun on himself, if necessary, to avoid being taken by cannibalistic survivors.
As they continue their journey they are literally on the verge of death from starvation when they happen across a hidden underground cache. This is presumably an abandoned survival shelter, which has amazingly been left; seemingly undiscovered and still packed with food, clothes and other supplies. Although the boy wants to rest there for longer, they move on after a few days, as the site is too exposed.
Trekking on they evade roving gangs, scrounge for food and witness horrors associated with cannibalism.. ..one of which I will leave you to discover for yourself, as I don’t really want to write about it.. ..another involves them coming across captives, who are being held simply to be harvested for food.. ..as such the man and the boy hastily leave them, where they find them.
Eventually they do indeed reach the sea, but their situation shows no improvement.
They head back inland, but the father is shot with an arrow. He soon dies, maybe due to the wound, but also possibly due to his long-term illness, which continues to worsen, unabated throughout the novel. The father has told his son that he can continue to talk to him after he is gone, through prayer.
The boy stays with his fathers corpse for a couple of days, trying to come to terms with his loss and not really knowing what to do next.
On the third day he encounters a man, whilst he is still grieving over his fathers body, who tells him he has been tracking them for some time now.. ..he also reassures the boy that he is one of the “good guys”. Helping to convince the boy of this is the fact that the man is also accompanied by a woman and two children, as such he joins them and the novel ends.
Development of the novel
McCarthy has revealed that he would have conversations with his brother about the different outcomes of an apocalyptic event.. ..they agreed that inevitably there would be cannibalism, “when everything’s gone, the only thing left to eat is each other”.
McCarthy was also interviewed by Operah Winfrey and concluded that the inspiration for the story came from a visit to El Paso, Texas in 2003 with his own son. During the interview McCarthy insisted that his son, John Francis, was a co-author to the novel, revealing that some of the conversations between the father and son in the novel were based upon actual conversations between them. He concluded the interview by saying that he had imagined what things might look like in the future and took some initial notes.. ..this idea then rested until he was in Ireland a few years later, where he quickly transcribed the novel.. ..the novel is dedicated to his son.
This is a fantastic and universally acclaimed novel, with academic as well a critical praise, as such it goes without saying that you should read it.. ..it is harrowing and not to be taken lightly, but it also offers tenderness and some hope about relationships and humanity in general. I think, for me, what makes it particularly ‘impactful’ is that is seems very real and frighteningly possible.. ..it is a reflective and fascinating insight into the delicate balance that society pivots on. In that way it is possibly one of the greatest warnings of our frailty and dependence upon each other that has ever been written.