I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy, even though he’s on all the Must Read lists. And I’ve never seen No Country For Old Men, despite the fact that I would probably watch Javier Bardeem watch paint dry. It seemed very Western to me, and Westerns aren’t really my thing, The Road isn’t really my thing either – let’s not forget I’m the same girl who read Beautiful Bastard, not once, but twice – but sometimes you have to read smart books, and McCarthy is definitely on that list.
The Road centers around the man and the boy – no names here, for names are wholly unimportant – making their way down a literal road in a trek to the sea. It feels like they’re in America, but it’s an America unlike anything we know now. It’s cold, it’s grey, it’s snowing, and there is nothing left. Quite literally, nothing. No power, no food, no people, nothing. Their destination is the coast, with the man telling the boy that if they could just get to the sea, they may be able to get to some sort of salvation and maybe find other survivors, the “good guys”. But the man doesn’t know that for sure; in fact, he has no idea what they will find there, but he knows that to stay put means certain death.
But there are shadowy dangers along the way. Other people, the cold, the snow, lack of food, lack of water, lack of shelter, lack of humanity threatens their survival. The man and boy are often forced to hide in woods underneath trees that will never turn green, or along the banks of icy rivers, huddled under plastic tarps, desperate for warmth. Added to this, the man has a mysterious cough, tinged pink with blood, and although he tried to hide it from the boy, it soon becomes clear that he is training the boy for life after he is gone.
McCarthy never details what catastrophic event led to the destruction of the entire world. I assume a nuclear bomb, but I have trouble imagining the whole country – or possibly the whole world – affected by that. I also thought of some sort of climate change event, or perhaps a volcanic eruption, and at one point I even entertained a zombie invasion. My guess is nuclear bomb, but my feeling is also that it doesn’t matter what the event is, only that it is.
McCarthy’s not easy to read. The emotions that pour off the page and in to the reader are far more complicated than his simple, sparse prose would indicate. I found myself sort of mooning about the house or my office after reading this at lunchtime, in such a melancholy mood at times that Boss asked what was wrong with me. “Reading this book,” I said. “Ah,” he nodded, in perfect understanding of how a book can affect one’s mood.
The Road is bleak and sad and reeks of loneliness, but there are also pockets – albeit infinitesimally small ones – of hope strewn in there. It’s hope that keeps us alive, after all, even in the face of utter destruction, and hope that marches forward.