The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a story of the journey of a father and son across the lifeless, blasted terrain of post-apocalyptic America. There is nothing living except a few bands of desperate survivors; the barren earth is no longer capable of supporting complex life. The only food available is what can be scrounged from the ruins, the only fresh meat is human flesh. The man and the boy are heading south, but they have no reason to believe that what they find will be any better than anywhere else. To the north, however, lies certain death from exposure and starvation.
They have a gun, with two bullets. One for each of them.
We would never eat people, the boy asks. No, never, the man replies.
The man and the boy are never named, conceits like that belong to another world, a place that doesn’t exist any more, a place the boy has never known. In the new, unrelentingly grim, world, there are only bad guys — people who will do anything, anything at all, to stay alive — and good guys — people who still entertain notions of right and wrong. People who, in the words of the boy, are carrying the flame. Even in the face of the horrifyingly pragmatic decisions the man has to make, the boy retains an inherent goodness, and on his shoulders lie the future of mankind.
I was going to write that McCarthy has discarded many of the rules of modern grammar and style, but it would be more accurate to say that he has developed his own grammar and honed it over the years. Rather than bind his sentences with the concepts of subject and verb, in McCarthy’s writing sentences are units of thought, impressions, fragments that map the experience of the characters. Most of the time this works, but sometimes in dialog it is easy to lose track of who is saying what, and the prose sometimes suffers from ambiguous pronouns. When reading this story it’s best not to worry about those things too much, but to let the words flow, bump, jitter, and lapse into silence the way the writer intended them to.
I can see them coming now, the scores of writers who think that it is McCarthy’s style that makes him such a compelling writer, and who will try to imitate him with disastrous results. What makes McCarthy a good writer is his clear vision, his ability to make language work for him, and his ability to create sympathetic characters in the bleakest of situations.
The future shown in this story is a grim one indeed, and there were times I thought to myself “all right, already, life sucks, I get it.” But there is movement in the unrelenting gray of the world, as we see the toll the road takes on the travelers, and watch as their courses diverge. This is a mighty fine read.
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