Cormac McCarthy – The Road (2006)

Once in those early years he’d wakened in a barren wood and lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead in that bitter dark. Their half muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl. He wished them godspeed till they were gone. He never heard them again.”

Cormac McCarthy never specifies what turns the world to ashes in the Road. Nor does he need to; cities are reduced to slag, carbonized forests shudder in cinder-flecked wind, and very little life–plant, animal, human–remains. So why would the why or how matter?

The Road centers on a nameless father and his young son as they search for warmer weather and less dangerous surroundings. The latter is especially difficult, as rover packs of marauders are more interested in cannibalism than discourse. It’s a grim, bleak setting for a novel, but that only emphasizes the selfless love the father and son share for one another. Paraphrasing Dostoevsky, the relentless darkness of the setting just makes the beauty more clear.

McCarthy’s gorgeous, sparse narrative clings to the skeletal plot. The father and son spend much of the novel tired, hungry and cold. Searches for food never yield much, encounters with the remains of humankind are mortifying, and the bitter winter winds continue to follow the man and the boy coastward. Through haunting vignettes, McCarthy elevates the despair until it’s shy of overwhelming; the parent and child’s devotion to each other, though, always acts as a buffer before it becomes unbearable.

I can’t relate the paradoxical nature of the book enough–it’s harsh, brutal, but simultaneously moving and unbelievably humane. McCarthy is a master of brief, clipped sentences that give just enough flavor to convince you how absolutely dire the father and son’s situation is. The world is a burnt husk. Plants will not grow. Canned food is increasingly hard to find, and fresh food is a decade-old dream. The child’s mother took her own life because of her anguish. The father carries a revolver with two rounds left in the cylinder; they may be for protection, they may not be. But their shortcomings aside, the child possesses a luminous faith in the eternal, and the father a marked appreciation for the small things–fresh apples, beach breeze through his wife’s gauzy dress–that are easily taken for granted.

McCarthy has written many great novels over the past four decades, but maybe it’s taken this long for him to write an ending as simple and moving as the one in the Road. It’s as important a novel as they come, and already one of the defining books of the new millennium.

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