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The Road by Cormac McCarthyUK edition4.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsWhen the Soviet Union collapsed, an entire subgenre of SF — the post-apocalypse story — became obsolete overnight. Suddenly, with no more Evil Russkies out there to threaten mom and apple pie with thermonuclear war, it was with no small sense of relief that SF novels set well into the 21st century with Evil Russkies as villains were declared quaint relics of an age of fear we were well rid of. 

Perhaps overlooked in the relegation of post-apocalyptic fiction to the back shelves was the notion that it didn’t have to be global superpowers waging all-out Strangelovian nuclear holocaust that could lead to humanity’s doom. These days we have new enemies. Nuclear terrorism wouldn’t necessarily trigger a global event, but certainly would ruin a lot of folks’ days and propel us into even more nightmarish, endless conflict. And the looming environmental crisis brought on by climate change, aided and abetted by comfy denial of same by people who don’t see what they don’t want to see, could put our species’ survival at risk just as thoroughly. (Though SF is now seeing a growing trend in climate fiction that isn’t going to abate any time soon.)

In short, the 2000s still offer a fair share of speculative scenarios for post-apocalyptic fiction. But in his Pulitzer Prize-winning tour de force The Road, Cormac McCarthy, that reclusive master of the literature of Americana, ignores causes in favor of effects. This is a story of love, hope and survival in a desolated world in which those very concepts have been obliterated as completely as the landscape. The Road is of a piece with much of McCarthy’s earlier work, which often takes about as dark and cynical view of the world as you’d care to experience. His early books, Child of God and Outer Dark, take southern gothic right to the doorstep of psychological horror, and his sweeping epic All the Pretty Horses is set in a world in which the idealism of youth always loses the brutal Darwinian battle with reality. 

McCarthy’s characters are often searchers, undertaking not very well-defined quests to find parts of themselves they know are missing even if they can’t readily be identified. In The Road, we travel with two survivors, a man and his son, who push their meager belongings down a highway in a shopping cart, the land all around them a grey moonscape. We don’t know the man’s name, or the boy’s. Their names are not important. Their bond is. We don’t know exactly what brought the world to its end. We get a memory flashback or two from the father (the boy was born just after the holocaust), of burning, burning, and more burning. But it probably isn’t nuclear war, because none of the locations is shown to be radioactive and cities still stand as empty shells. All we know is that father and son are together, monotonously treading on, through a burned out America where ashy snow falls from the sky. The father wants to take them “south,” where the winters are less harsh and, perhaps, there will be more “good” people. But there is no real promise here, only hope. After all, any place is better than where they are, even as every place looks the same.

Human encounters are few, and rarely pleasant. Whether it’s a horrowing near escape from a cannibal clan, or the father’s cold-blooded — but in his mind, entirely necessary and unavoidable — abandonment of a man struck by lightning and dying on the side of the road, the objective is to avoid human contact in this Dante-like purgatory at all costs, and keep the boy alive until they reach their goal, whatever it is.

If this sounds like just about the bleakest novel ever, I won’t lie to you. But at the same time, it’s among the most riveting. It’s almost impossible not to read the whole thing in a single sitting. As another critic has noted, you’re almost afraid to stop reading because you think the characters might die if you do. McCarthy’s spare prose is perfectly accessible, and our two protagonists hit so close to home because they personify that most elemental of human relationships — parent/child — stripped down to the level where the deepest possible connection is made from the instinct to survive. The boy is only able to survive because of the father’s protection. The father only remains alive because his son needs him. Sometimes the father feels a stronger urge to live than the boy, who has known no world other than this dead husk. But now there’s a greater urgency to the father’s mission. He knows he is dying — too much blood comes out with his rasping coughs — and the need to see his son to a promised land that maybe nothing more than a phantom is all that keeps him on his feet.

The boy appears to be about eight or nine here, though we’re not told his age explicitly. Time is one of the first things you lose track of when the world has ended. If so, this means the two of them have been slogging along this way for years. The desperation is almost inconceivable, as is the heroism it would take simply to stay alive under such conditions for so long.

McCarthy has written a post-apocalyptic novel that eschews politics and focuses on the human fallout. While there is a grim inevitability to the narrative even in its few bright moments — the lucky discovery of a well-provisioned, unlooted bomb shelter behind a farm saving our heroes from starvation at one point — The Road is nevertheless a testament to human resilience and strength under even the most soul-crushing adversity. In the end, it is uplifting in its own de profundis way. Whatever hardships people may face, in the end, we will do all it takes to keep from going gently into that good night. Even if we have nowhere in particular to go, our love of life, and for each other, is what keeps us trudging down that road.