This is a book about love.
I know: how does that make sense? How can a book which depicts the exhausted travel of a man (“the man”) and a boy (“the boy”) along and around a road somewhere unidentified in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic America be about love?
But it is. The man loves his son, the boy, born after the nuclear event whose occurrence we only get to guess at. The man loves the world, in its destroyed beauty, as one loves and longs for a departed lover who one knows will never come back.
And the author loves language. McCarthy has created such a beautiful work here. His decision not to use apostrophes or quotation marks is at first jarring, and then surprising, then intriguing, then fits perfectly with the exhausted tone of the characters. This is no time for the intrusively attention-seeking niceties of apostrophes and quotation marks. It’s a time simply for surviving.
The man and the boy have been walking for – how long? We don’t know. There are no clocks except the rising and setting of the sun and of the moon. The earth is an ember, ash its skin. Into this narrative McCarthy injects language that perfectly mirrors the strange timelessness the characters find themselves in: “jackstraw”, “harrowtrough”, words that sit at the edge of our knowledge, understood at our peripheral vision, but not when we look directly at them.
Yes, there are very dark events in this book. McCarthy is describing a world where it seems nature has given up, exhausted, where nothing new seems to grow, where the trees fall and only stir up ash. He’s conjuring up a world where humans still live, but barely get by. McCarthy can see the darkness that would lie in mens’ hearts, and the things they would do, to survive.
I loved this book. I read it in fear of what would happen next, but in awe of the skill with which McCarthy found the words to describe something most of us would shrink even from thinking about and then found the way to knit those words together to tell a love story.
The love of the father for the child is so deep, so enduring – it’s the central relationship of the book, of course (apart from the father’s weary desire for the lost world). To be a father with a son and to read this book (I’m in that category) is to feel the pain of impending loss – loss that might be around the corner, or might be years hence – yet also the joy of sharing everything with them, being almost cocooned in time. The father is never exasperated with the boy. Never impatient, never angry. There’s time, so much time, too much time, yet not enough time either because each cycle of the sun demands survival.
Ultimately, I think it’s impossible as a father of a boy to read this book and not ask yourself: would my love for my child be that strong? Could you make the right choices in a world that strips choice away?
Most of all, though, it’s a book that will leave you awestruck if you’re prepared to immerse yourself in it, to swim in its language. The power of McCarthy’s writing is exceptional; the simplicity of the descriptions belies the reality he’s describing.
You might ask where The Road will take you. The answer: where any road takes you: as far as you want to go, as far as it can.