Great writers challenge us with books about difficult subjects. They are the ones who enter the cave with a torch and shine the light on things we would rather not see up close. Cormac McCarthy is a great writer.
In previous works, like BLOOD MERIDIAN, he was not afraid to shine a light on subjects such as American violence. In this book, THE ROAD, McCarthy illuminates the ultimate nightmare that has haunted mankind since August 1945. This is a dystopian look at America, or what would be left of America, after a nuclear war. This is a book that stares, unblinking, straight into the abyss.
It is a masterpiece. THE ROAD might be one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written.
McCarthy's power comes from telling a simple story in the simplest language. There are no character names. There are no dates. There is no timeline. There are no chapters in THE ROAD. We never even find out what the real "war to end all wars" was about. Nobody won. Everything was lost. The book offers no lessons in history, politics or foreign policy. There are no stirring speeches made about God or country or freedom.
It is just the story of "the day after" a few years later, as told by a father and his young son, who is probably about five years old. They travel the road with a supermarket shopping card containing all their worldly possessions, including a pistol with only two bullets left in the chamber.
"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out and touch the child sleeping besides him. Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world."
So begins this extraordinary novel. And we join them on the road. Governments and countries no longer exist. There is no such thing now as law and order. Most people died in the nuclear holocaust. Those who did survive are either part of marauding, mad, violent gangs or lone and possibly dangerous scavengers.
The man and his boy have no food and must hunt through the blasted remnants of the countryside, foraging crumbs and prized items of canned goods from the cabinets and shelves of empty houses inhabited only by the dead. With another merciless winter coming --- they think but cannot be sure since there are no calendars anymore --- they follow a vague plan to take the road south to the sea and hopefully find the warmer weather that no longer exists on earth.
Their journey is the stuff of nightmares. "The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in the doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put in your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that."
The boy has no memory of the lost world. He was still not born when "it" happened. His father recalls to himself, "The clock stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it, she said. He didn't answer."
The father remembers the lost world, but banishes those memories and dreams for they do them no good. "There is no past," he tells himself. Nor does he sugarcoat the situation for his son. They stay on the road --- starving, cold and sick --- but focused entirely on the daily job of survival.
This is a terrifying story. McCarthy is a master at relentlessly building the terror as their journey continues through a gray world littered with advertising signs for products that no longer exist and where the sun never breaks through the gray dust storms of the nuclear winter. He writes, "By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp."
Yet this is not a depressing book. In the love and concern that this father and son display for each other, THE ROAD becomes the story of the triumph of love and humanity in the worst of circumstances. The father tells his child at one point, "This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They never give up."
And toward the end, he says, "I will do what I promised...No matter what. I will not send you into the darkness alone."
The novel never gives way to despair and the ending is breathtaking. This is powerful writing at its best. But be warned, it is a tough subject. After all, we have seen the gray ash of death and destruction covering the streets of lower Manhattan and the corpses abandoned for days on the streets of New Orleans. But those were just sneak previews of the nuclear holocaust. McCarthy reminds us here of what Albert Einstein tried to teach us six decades ago: if a nuclear war ever happens, the living will envy the dead.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has kept a doomsday clock since 1947. It stands today at seven minutes to midnight, having moved ahead by two minutes in 2002. The Bulletin tells us on their website that there are 31,000 nuclear weapons in the world today and 16,000 of them are still operationally deployed by the U.S. and Russia. That's a nice way of saying that they could be fired at a moment's notice.
McCarthy doesn't recite these numbers in THE ROAD. He doesn't have to. As a great fiction writer he has written a haunting book that will stay with you long after you finish it. THE ROAD is going to become a classic. Read it. It is later than we all think.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011