I first read Cormac McCarthy years ago. I read Blood Meridian and really enjoyed it. It was gritty, violent, nihilistic and it really appealed to me. It is a little shameful that it has taken more than 10 years to follow up on that enjoyment and read another McCarthy book. To read The Road to fulfill the dystopia category for the Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013 seemed the perfect way to rectify this.
I had no expectations. I haven’t seen the film so I was aware only vaguely as to what this was about. McCarthy doesn’t give many details. There has been an unspecified happening and now there are (at first) unspecified dangers. This had the effect of unsettling the reader as there was no way of knowing exactly where the danger would come from. Details start to emerge but not enough to ever offer security to the reader. Not enough to allow knowledge of the future.
The crux of this novel is the relationship between The Man and his son, The Boy. The fact that they are not named gives the novel an universal feel. While specific events will have lead to this particular situation, there is a sense that it is a timeless situation. Acts of war, violence, atrocity have always existed and will always exist. The Man and The Boy are just the current version of the victims of this violence. Not the first, nor the last.
The Man tells The Boy to watch out for bad guys and that they are the good guys. And while the bad guys are cannibalistic and the signs we are given of their presence are horrific, The Man also acts in a way that The Boy perceives to be bad – he doesn’t help people when he could and when they are robbed, The Man retaliates in a way that is extremely brutal. This suggests that the ‘bad’ guys may also merely be responding to circumstances, in whatever way they can. In these extreme circumstances, the difference between good and bad gets smaller and smaller. After all, what would you do in order to survive?
The prose and the plot are not complicated but that does not stop this from being one of the most devastating books that I have ever read. The details that McCarthy does give build an atmosphere of tension and fear that is both compelling and horrendous. I wanted to read on and not to read on, both at the same time. I worried for The Man and for The Boy because it seems inevitable that it will not end well for them. There is no note of hope here. As such, the ending is open to interpretation. It could be seen as a rescue, as a hopeful moment but if we have learned anything in this novel, it is that human nature finds it difficult to retain its goodness under extreme circumstances and that it is difficult to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I want to hope for the best for The Boy because he, more than the man, does seem to represent the good of humanity. He often berates The Man over what he perceives to be bad behaviour but which we can can see is to do with self-preservation. Because of this, I do not feel that the ending can be straightforwardly positive but it can hope for the best. Perhaps that is all any of us can do.