I have been reading the The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which is the most recent Oprah’s Book Club selection. To prevent anyone from saying anything negative about Oprah Winfrey, let me remind you that she is a legend. Lots of people hate on her, which I guess is par for the course when you’re a black woman with over a billion dollars. I don’t understand the real animosity and mockery out there of her book club. Many people say, “A bunch of housewives are only reading those books because Oprah told them to!” Well if a huge number of people are suddenly reading things like Steinbeck and Breath, Eyes, Memory on Oprah’s advise, who cares?
The Road is a look at a terrible future in which the world is covered in ash and the only human beings who remain are either cannibals or those running from them. It is the story of a father and son who are trying to make their way south to a warmer place because another winter is likely to kill them if the bloodcults don’t get them first. Their desperate searches for canned goods to eat and places to hide are thrilling and terrifying. In this world we want to believe that there are only a few who have survived, but we are reminded again and again that there are enough left to never feel like you’ve escaped the danger of desperate, immoral people who have come to realize that they nothing matters anymore except having something to eat. For the father, however, the only thing that matters is that his child remains as safe as possible and that his survival continues to aid that of the boy.
At one point in the novel, the pair comes across an old man making his way down the road as well. They had just come across a big supply of food that they are pushing along in their shopping cart. The father would just pass the man by, as he would anyone so as not to endanger themselves or get caught up in helping another in a time when one can only do so much for oneself, and the helping of another is a risk that can get both the helper and the helped killed, or worse. The boy however, is still burdened with compassion for strangers. He implores his father to share some of their food with the old man, which he gives in to, and they sit the night by a fire with the old man, to whom the father says, “You should thank him—I wouldn’t have given you anything”—and the seemingly ungrateful old man refuses and acknowledges that he wouldn’t have done the same for the boy, either.
The old man is a compelling character in a novel where we get to know little about anyone but two of the last few “good guys” (what the father has explained to his child that they are), the father and son. The old man lies about his name and his age, and when called on his lies he states that those lies are protective measures of some sort. He also shares that he was always a roamer, and he always knew “it” – the unexplained catastrophe that turned the world into the burned, ashy wasteland – was coming. At this moment in the novel I gave pause, because I, like many people, have always felt like “it” is coming and the imagining of McCarthy’s novel has made me think again about how long I could last if I were a survivor at all.
Interesting things I wondered about as I read the novel:
1. The boy was born shortly after “it” happened, so he has grown up knowing only it. However his desire to help others is strong. Where would he have learned this? His father is unwilling to help anyone, and with pretty good reason not to. Additionally, the boy knows a lot of language, and how to read. He also desires to have the company of other children and he knows what certain extinct animals are as well as vehicles (he makes truck-noises as he plays with his toy truck). Where did the boy learn all of this in a world were little exists as reference? Was the catastrophe mild enough at the start to allow him time to grow up and gain some reference, and became increasingly worse, destroying more and leading to the development of the bloodcults?
2. Besides reaching a warmer climate, why are they moving south? The man knows he doesn’t know what they will find there. Is it just a direction to run, with the benefit of added warmth? If it’s warmer and more habitable, won’t there be more competition there and more cannibals? And won’t they just have to keep running anyway?
3. Why aren’t there more “good guys”? Have they been overpowered by the bloodcults? How are there so many truly emotionless cannibals who have emerged in this aftermath of the catastrophe? Has being the “bad guys” allowed for them to outlive the population of “good guys”?
Yes, this story is not new – everything from The Stand to Mad Max has addressed the issue of the postapocolyptic age of terror and desperation. But McCormac’s take is original and inspiring. While it is wearing thin in the scattered populace as well, the last human trait that remains in the scorched earth is the will to live. I am a slow reader and read this simply complex book in one sitting. Highly recommended.