Read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest living writers, and probably my favorite modern writer. Some have called him a modern-day Faulkner, but I believe his work is substantial enough to stand alone without comparison. Even if you are not familiar with McCarthy’s writing, you are probably tangentially aware of his work due to various film adaptations, such as All the Pretty Horses (from his “Border Trilogy” – also highly recommended) and No Country For Old Men, which recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Road was also adapted to film in 2009, though I have very purposely chosen not to see the movie, because I am afraid it will not compare favorably to the book.
The plot of The Road is very simple. A unnamed father and son travel along a road in a post-apocalyptic (seemingly post-nuclear holocaust, though not stated explicitly) world in a struggle to survive the harsh elements – both natural and man-made. The father and son are travelling south in an attempt to escape the upcoming winter weather. Although we are never told the exact route, we presume that it takes place in the Great Smoky Mountain region of the American South, with descriptions of the mountainous terrain a clue, as well as mention of a faded “See Rock City” sign on an abandoned barn. I will not reveal any more plot elements, but I will alert you to be prepared for a harrowing journey.
Although the plot is compelling – and at times thrilling – this is not a plot-driven book. If you are looking for a page-turner in the style of John Grisham, then this book is not for you. The brilliance of The Road is twofold, first in McCarthy’s portrayal of the father and son relationship, and then simply the quality of the writing itself – certainly prose, but also poetic throughout.
The Road presents a vivid and realistic picture of what the world would look like should civilization end. And, it’s a bleak portrait, no doubt, but as depressing as the book sounds, the story is actually very uplifting. One of the central themes is the resiliency of the familial relationship even when challenged by the complete destruction of society. The father and son travel together, survive together, and in one of the most poignant moments, share one of the last Coca-Colas on earth together:
He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat. For you.
Yes, in this world the boy knows nothing of television or sports or soft drinks. The bare necessities of life are the only things that are knowable in his world. Who will survive? What will become of the ruined world? Is there any hope? You will just have to read The Road to find out, but rest assured: if there wasn’t any glimmer of hope in this fictional world, I wouldn’t want any part of it.
(From time to time I will post essays about my favorite books and writers).