What lingers with me after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,
is not the tenderness of love between father and son, nor the enduring hopefulness of the boy. No, it is the haunting descriptions of people kept like cattle to be eaten by other people. The faceless, nameless people cowed into a cellar kept drifting through my dreams like ghosts in a graveyard.
I can’t say I liked the book. That would be too much. It’s apocalyptic vision is unrelievedly grim. At times it becomes unbelievable. We are never told what kind of event could turn all the plant life to ash and destroy all the animals—not just domestic animals but fish and birds and mice and insects too—but leave some human beings alive to carry on a meager existence feeding on stores of canned goods and preying on one another. We are never told why or how if all other life on the planet is gone, microbes that cause human disease have somehow survived. But McCarthy seems uninterested in explaining the causes of this future state. His interest is in answering the question, “What does the will to survive look like when all hope of good is gone?”
For the father and son in his tale, it looks a lot like love. His unnamed characters live like scavenging animals but still cling to human decency. They bathe and shave when it is safe to do so. They eat with spoons and neatly pack their few belongings into an old shopping cart for transport.
When I think back on the story, however, the father and son recede into its background, and the naked depravity of the people they meet is what I remember most. They come across roving gangs of cannibals. Even those who might not otherwise harm them would kill them for fear of being harmed themselves. Everyone lives in constant misery and terror. These things, which McCarthy intends as the backdrop for his story of the love between father and son, come to the foreground as I reflect on the book. It may well deserve its Pulitzer, but I won’t be reading it again.