The Road is not an easy book to dive into. Cormac McCarthy’s sparse narrative lacks the pace to hook me in the first couple of pages. The first 50 are filled with repeated observations of the bleak, ashy, apocalyptic setting in which “man” and “boy” aimlessly survive. Neither character seems very invested in their daily routine. My own investment in the book began to feel almost as pointless.
McCarthy’s minimalist writing style removes chapters, accents, apostrophes, quotations, and even names. Initially, this makes following along quite difficult, but after a couple of persistent hours, reading becomes more natural. As I softened up to the man and his son’s brief, question-response conversations, I began to appreciate McCarthy’s style. His stripped down narrative lends to a stark, raw, vulnerable tone, which compliments the human character’s blunt resilience as they wander through a psychological hell on earth.
Despite my strong doubts, Cormac McCarthy succeeded in blowing me away with the latter part of his novel. As he tests his characters, their dynamic relationship is exposed and I find myself so intimately rooting for them that I can’t leave the story. With repetition and powerful language, he memorializes profound themes among their quiet struggles where highly dramatic action is impossible.
Arguably, the author’s strongest theme in this book is unbroken diligence to duty. In the midst of staggeringly hopeless futility, the man fights for his son’s life because he was “appointed by God” to care for him (p. 77). He runs out in the cold darkness to find timber while his son warms up by the fire, and by the time he’d get back with the wood, the pit is a “nest of quaking embers.” With this, the man realizes it is “hard to stay ahead” (p. 96). Sometimes, the endless fight against death seems to him senseless as “insects trooping the rim of a bowl,” (p. 53). Round and round he runs, avoiding the inevitable end so near. His fight is bleak and grueling, but when he looks at his son, he sees a “strange beauty” that pushes him to carry on (p. 102).
Reading The Road is an emotional ride. Father and son see sex slaves, torture victims, cooking infants, orphans, robbers, and blind men in rags, wallowing on the side of road. Compassion is not always the most economic option for the pair, and they often have to turn on without second thought if they want to live. This book is not completely hopeless, however. There is compassion hiding beneath the ash and death. The boy offers food to the blind man “for nothing” and sees the shocked hope light up his face. And when death takes the boy from his father, the boy finds the “good guys,” who promise to take care of him in his father’s stead.