To a reader like me, who voraciously consumes spoon-fed, tried-and-true Sci-Fi tropes without scoffing, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road teeters on the edge of greatness for a majority of the fittingly winding narrative. It withholds details that, to any other book, would be crucial. It chooses moments of solemn tranquility over epic conflict. It dives deep into the psychology of a father and son walking across a gutted landscape instead of pitting them against hordes of zombies or quasi-undead humans. As I read the novel, I’d lean into this gentle back-and-forth between greatness and insignificance. By the end, I landed gingerly on the side of quality, pushed along by gusts of heart-wrenching story beats and lyrical but grounded poetic prose. And the more I ponder it, the more I feel that The Road is a fantastic book, though it will inevitably polarize readers.
McCarthy’s “masterpiece,” as the back cover dubs it, follows a boy and his father as they traverse a burnt and barren America in the wake of a devastating apocalypse. Save for a few hints and memories, no concrete explanation of the apocalyptic event emerges. Instead, McCarthy treats readers to a harrowing tale of two people trying to survive. The boy and his father are never named. In fact, only one character in the entire book gives a name, and even then it isn’t clear whether he is telling the truth. To divulge any more plot details would lead us dangerously near spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at this: the boy and father venture through this destroyed world in an attempt to find safety or refuge, and they must make snap decisions that could lead to a better life or a painful death.
Despite their namelessness, our two protagonists are remarkably defined. The boy is curious about the world and eager to help others thrive whenever he is given a chance. The father’s memories of the old world jade him to the new one, and he’s driven only by his desire to keep the boy alive. McCarthy varies his descriptions of their journey and their world so skillfully that the reader sees everything through the boy’s eyes and his father’s in near simultaneity.
Some descriptions of the world and depictions of the conversations between the protagonists are so fittingly drab that readers could be quick to denounce McCarthy’s writing as dull or uninspired. Instead of casting it off as such, I asked myself: In a post-apocalyptic setting, how much brilliance can be allowed to emerge? When a ravaged landscape strips bare all of its inhabitants leaving only dust and the will to survive, is there room left for actual human emotion? How can the eyes of this man and his child, so tinted by destruction, see beauty in the world at every turn?
McCarthy’s prose walks these lines and tackles these questions with remarkable poise. At times, the dialogue ignites into radiant descriptions of the world before the catastrophe or vividly dark passages about the spoiled earth. In other sections, the story finds the lowest common conversational denominator, effortlessly and tangibly indicating the need for survival above all else. “Okay.” The boy says. “Okay.” The dad says. It may be less than they need, but it’s the most they can manage.
In my research about The Road, I noticed a majority of reviewers mention McCarthy’s choice to use only the occasional punctuation. Some wax romantic about his brilliant use of poetic license. Others remark that it’s unnecessarily obtuse. In my mind, they’re not mutually exclusive. Sure, only using periods with the occasional comma and never once using quotation marks can symbolize the starving nature of the characters at hand. But there are other ways to approach that goal. Personal preference will reign supreme here, deterring some while attracting others.
The entire story of The Road culminates into a gloriously tragic and satisfying end, flavored by slight hints of ambiguity. It’s poignant and true to the many pages and words that comprise the bulk of the novel. True to the title, the ending sees our characters at an intersection with a crucial decision to make. Given the skill with which McCarthy teaches the reader about his characters, I felt equipped to guess what might happen next. And while that may not be satisfying for all, it certainly was for me.
The Road is a genuinely astonishing tale marred only by the inevitability of personal stylistic preference. If you don’t mind occasionally dense prose or doing some of the world-building on your own without hand-holding, this touching journey deserves a slot on your to-read shelf.
Rating: The Road: 9.0/10