Often, and by often I mean all of the time, I read books as an escape. I can dive into a different world to escape my own for whatever reason. Stress, boredom, the people who live in my house are being too loud, you know, whatever. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories have always been a favorite of mine. Reading about other worlds that are far more messed up than your own makes you think, well crap, things could always be worse, right?
Weird things happen when you re-read a book, but do so at a different point in your life. It’s fascinating how what’s going on around you in the real world can have an effect on how you respond to a work of fiction. I first read The Road back in the late 2000s. I can’t remember the exact year. I just remember I was a lawyer back then. A lawyer who hated being a lawyer. And I’m pretty sure Obama was president. What I do remember is that I loved the book. It’s dark, a bit depressing, and very much fits into that “things could always be worse” line of thinking.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
The Road is the story of a father and son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. They’re making their way south to the ocean because they will not survive another winter where they are. They trudge along the road pushing a shopping cart that holds all of their worldly possessions. They wear makeshift masks to avoid breathing in the “grainy air.”
We don’t know what event created this gray and ash covered world, but that’s ok. We don’t really need that information. Based on McCarthy’s descriptions, we can assume it was probably a nuclear war. Everything is burnt, ashy, gray. No animals, no fruit hanging from trees, no green, no color at all, just a desolate land. Even the sunrise and sunset are described as bleak and gray. Through flashbacks, we learn the boy was born into this world a few nights after the incident that caused it. We learn the mother is dead, but I won’t say how because spoilers. The man coughs up blood, so we know he’s dying. He also wrestles with the idea of possibly having to kill his son if things get too bad. And the boy knows how to do it himself if the need arises.
The biggest worry for them is food. It’s usually a “well that’s convenient” kind of moment when they do find food/water/shelter because they’re on the brink of death, but it works. The scarcity of food or anything that might be able to produce it has resulted in cannibals wandering the road. But they don’t encounter the cannibals a lot which, depending on what you’re looking for in the story, may be a good or bad thing. If you’re looking for a lot of action and fighting, then you will be disappointed. This is not that book. At all. It is literally about a man and a boy walking down a desolate road in search of food and temporary shelter. They don’t encounter much because there just isn’t much there. The world is dead. Depressing, right? Don’t get me wrong though there are some moments of cheerfulness, but they are few and far between. McCarthy has said that this book is a love story to his son. He wanted to write a story about a man and his son and their relationship in this type of setting. So, that’s what you get. Kind of. I can’t imagine there are too many bonding opportunities at the end of the world, so it works out to being a strange sort of relationship.
McCarthy’s writing itself is simplistic and raw. There are no chapters, barely any punctuation, no dialogue tags. With only 2 characters, no tags isn’t that big of a deal. You can usually work out who is talking. And there isn’t much in the way of conversation anyway. It usually consists of talking about the good guys and bad guys, and the son wondering if they are the good ones. I mean what else is there to really talk about in a dead world? The characters are nameless except Ely, but he’s probably lying about his name. And he’s only in the story for about 10 pages. This bare-bones writing style is why I think I liked this book so much. Removing the basic conventions of writing fits perfectly with a setting devoid of life and color. It’s brilliant that way.
I read this book again this year because I was teaching it to my students. Clearly, things have changed since my first reading. I’m now a happy English professor instead of a miserable attorney. And our political environment, well, that’s most definitely changed. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all political here, but it does need saying that where we are right now had a profound effect on my reading of this book again. The likelihood of the events of the book becoming a reality are much higher today than they were when I first read it. So yeah, I felt robbed of the “well at least things aren’t that bad” thinking because holy crap on a cracker, things could very easily be that bad.
Of the four books I had my students read this year, this was their least favorite. They found it to be too dark and depressing. They were always expecting something more to happen, for there to be more to the story. And there just isn’t. Perhaps it was unfair to put it up against books that I knew they would love (Ready Player One being one of them), but I thought it would be a great contrast. And it was. And they did appreciate McCarthy’s writing style and how well it fit with the story which was good. So, what didn’t they like?
First, the man did some really stupid things. For someone who was so desperate to protect his son and avoid other people at all costs, he does some silly and unpredictable things that would’ve easily attracted the attention of the bad guys. Shooting off a flare gun, building a huge fire in a fireplace, those sorts of things. There was some debate that he shot the flare gun to amuse his son, and in a world like that, you take entertainment where you can get it. But in the end, there was a general consensus that it was just a dumb thing to do when the ultimate goal is to not die.
Second, there was the over-description of the world at times. Because how many different ways can you describe things as dead and gray and ashy? Not many, apparently. You get a clear picture of what this world looks and feels like pretty early on in the book, so when he’s still describing it half way through the book, it just feels like overkill.
And third, it was a bit too close to being a possible reality. And that made it far more depressing than was probably intended.
So, even though they didn’t like it, we still had a lot of good discussions about the book. And that’s always a plus.
Now, would I recommend this book to others? If you are the type of person who can easily separate real life and that of fiction, then go for it. It is a good book. But, I’ve discovered over the years that very few avid readers can make that separation. So, if you’re worried about our possible annihilation from nuclear war at the moment, maybe wait a bit before picking this one up.
Peace, love, and all that good stuff.