by Cormac McCarthy, 2006
There are those people who read for plot, for whom a book in which little happens is a bore. And there are those of us who read for style, for whom a book in which little happens, but is written beautifully, is a treasure. I am one of the latter and I loved The Road. If you’re one of the former, I’m going to say you don’t need to read this book, Pulitzer Prize winner or no. You won’t like it.
The Road is a post-apocalyptic tale about a man and a boy traveling down a road. We don’t know where they’ve come from and we don’t know what happened to them. All we know is that they’re slowly making their way to the coast on foot, pushing a shopping cart filled with tarps and canned goods and struggling to survive. It is cold and it is wet along the road and little noises can signify big danger. In a time of such isolation, another human might seem a blessing, but here it means a fight for your life. It’s kill or be killed in this world, where more food for one person means less food for you. Now, it’s not entirely true that nothing happens in this book. There is some quite harrowing imagery to contend with, made even more frightening by the thought that these things may quite possibly happen if we were to find ourselves in a similar scenario.
More than that, this is a book about good and evil, about how these concepts we hold to be concrete are, in fact, malleable and relative. The boy constantly wants his father to assure him that they’re the good guys and the others are the bad guys, that they would never hurt anyone because that’s what only bad guys do:
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
But, the truth is that they would do – and they do – whatever they need to survive. Good and bad have no meaning in this world and we, the readers, are made to wonder whether we wouldn’t commit similar acts to ensure our own survival.
The language in this book is sparse, reflecting the desolate landscape across which our protagonists traverse. Not much needs to be said in this barren wasteland where there is little change from day to day, only the constant push forward to some sort of hope for salvation because, “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.” I’m not usually one for minimalist prose, but I found it incredibly effective here, allowing the helplessness and tragedy of the situation to shine through. There is no true conclusion to this book, only an ending to a part of the story of these two lives. We don’t know if things will ultimately be okay or, even, how they arrived in this situation to begin with. The book is despairingly open-ended, like life, like death. I found it utterly beautiful.