It was published in 2006, and I recalled of it only its central image as gleaned from reviews: a man and a boy trudging through a bleak post-apocalyptic world, pushing a shopping cart with all they own inside it. But now The Road has become a movie and it seemed urgent to finally read the book. I needed to let the author create the story in my mind before the filmmaker would.
Having done so this past week, I can only echo the praise lavished on this Pulitzer Prize winner. I did find the style somewhat jarring at first, McCarthy’s way of mixing complete and incomplete sentences inconsistent it seemed to me, but soon he had settled into something that worked better, or maybe I had simply settled into his language and cadence, caught up in the daily and wearisome journey of the two protagonists in that place beyond cataclysm, with its “creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland” and “the banished sun circl[ing] the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp,” the long trudge broken by reprieves of food and warmth, but mostly defined by cold and hunger and suspense — a constant undercurrent of menace, the cannibal “bad guys” near, their evil intimated in horrors like the remains of an infant on a spit.
When I was done it, the story nagged at me as a parable does, with both understanding and confusion. Yes, I see, I do see, but what am I to know from this? What does it really mean?
For me, as for many readers, the heart of the work is the relationship between the man and the boy — father and son. I loved their exchanges, cryptic but revealing, like outcroppings of love in the pervasive silence of the ashen desolation around them. Each occupies the positions one might expect of their roles as parent and child — the protective, reassuring father and the fearful, dependent child — and yet what makes these unnamed characters so resonant for me is that they don’t stay at stereotype or expectation. Each moves between wisdom and fear the way all humans will, regardless of role. The man is as needy as a child; he is often fearful; he often fails to get beyond an instinctive violence in his encounters with others. The boy can be as protective as a parent; he exhibits a moral conscience that judges his father’s actions; he grasps responsibility. When he is heartbroken over his father’s leaving a thief naked and robbed of everything, essentially to die, the man says, “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything,” and the boy says, “Yes I am. I am the one.”
The story seems a parable to me of being human — as parent or child — but engaged in the reciprocity and mutuality each generation in their humanness must experience with the other.
“Don’t read [this book] now if you are feeling particularly fragile, especially if you are a parent,” said British writer Victoria Glendinning in this past Saturday’s Globe and Mail, choosing The Road as her pick for “book of the decade.” I’d advise quite the opposite, however. I think The Road is a book well suited for parental fragility and fears. Children know so much more than we realize, and we as parents often so much less. We must help each other through the ashes of what happens. We can’t ever really protect each other in a world so utterly unsafe (be it future, or the one we occupy now), except for the enduring safety of love. But we can love, can’t we?