REVIEW SUMMARY: Nothing new for fans of post-apocalyptic sf, but a very good read nonetheless.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A father and his young son travel a post-apocalyptic landscape.
PROS: Well-drawn, dark atmosphere; compelling story; characters you root for; a great sf gateway novel.
CONS: While the lack of survivors paints a more hopeless picture, it means a lost opportunity to provide an even richer setting.
BOTTOM LINE: Appeals to both mainstream and sf readers.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, has built-in appeal for a variety of readers. Mainstream fiction readers will read it for its stark character study. Award-lovers will seek it out because the novel won the author a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (The first Pulitzer novel I ever read. Now I am complete.) Oprah fans flock to it because it was her Book of the Month selection. And science fiction fans will easily enjoy its post-apocalyptic setting. (Note to self: add The Road to the list of great science fiction gateway novels.)
The plot is quite simple at first glance, but McCarthy layers numerous elements on top of that to make a gripping story. It takes place years after some undisclosed catastrophe has killed off most of humanity and rendered the landscape barren. A father and son travel a road that leads to the coast where they hope to escape the unforgiving winter that would undoubtedly kill them. Their journey is not an easy one; food is hard to come by and the few people they meet are wisely assumed to be worth avoiding at all costs. Among this bleak landscape, the father and son drive ever-forward because their lives depend on it.
This is a simple plot, yes, but it’s oh so full of atmosphere. The feelings of despair and desolation pervade this novel from beginning to end. McCarthy’s depiction of emptiness is most immediately embodied by the printed words themselves: quotation marks are nowhere to be found and commas and apostrophes are used sparingly. Yet for all the lack of punctuation, McCarthy’s tight sentences evoke vivid imagery of the desolation and horrors of the situation. There are quite a few scenes where survival skills play heavily, too. The father and son scrounge for food, clothing and shelter – yet they are always on the move to avoid crossing paths with other survivors because “every man for himself” is the order of the day. Not that there are many others; McCarthy’s society is nonexistent. The cast of minor characters numbers less than ten. But again, all this starkness lends to the wonderfully dark mood.
For a novel as dark as this, it is perhaps surprising that not many specifics are revealed. For example, the true form of the apocalypse is never unmasked. We are, however, given multiple descriptions of the ash covered terrain, gray skies and charred corpses that would indicate some form of nuclear attack. We also don’t know the specifics of how the initial survivors were further whittled down to the remaining few, though some brief mention is made of disease. Perhaps nuclear radiation is the cause? The most obvious detail omitted: we never even learn the names of the father and son. Presumably all this vagueness is meant to bring into focus the journey rather than the people who are embarked upon it. It certainly does that but at the same time there is a lost opportunity of lending even more gravity to the story. McCarthy paints a picture of bleakness but doesn’t tell us how it was created. Perhaps more survivors would have lent richness to the story.
The father and son, nameless though they may be, do possess enough relatable traits to allow the reader to feel for them. What parent doesn’t put his child before himself? How do you respond to the innocent questions of a child who lacks the understanding of why things are the way they are? Do we even understand it ourselves? The father and son only have each other. Together they push the shopping cart that holds their meager possessions, logging single-digit miles per day. The son was too young to know what life was like before the disaster – this is the only life he knows. The father is the one most affected by the events since he is keenly aware of what was lost. Hardened by his experience and the knowledge of how what once was will probably never be, the father eventually feels forced to resort to uncivilized behavior. It is the son who is the voice of reason and compassion, perhaps having learned the teachings of the father, no matter how little the teacher believed it himself.
I can understand how non-genre readers would find this an intensely rich canvas on which to paint scenes of desperation. Fans of science fiction, though – in particular, fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction – might find McCarthy himself is walking a road often traveled, but welcome nonetheless.
Put another way: Both mainstream and sf fans will like this book.