“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before”
There’s no doubt about it. The Road is one of those books where you find yourself looking away every couple of chapters to exclaim ‘f**k me, this is depressing.’ It’s one of the bleakest stories you’ll ever read. Its plot could be summed up by ‘almost everyone dies and then the people that are left torture and eat each other’. And yet that would do it a grave injustice, because yes, it’s true that in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale even babies are seen merely as a source of protein and there are no trees or animals and it’s freezing cold and filthy 100% of the time, and yet it is also a beautiful story of human goodness and the redemptive power of love.
Following an unspecified apocalyptic event, an unnamed man and his unnamed son cross America by way of an unnamed road that the father is convinced will lead them to safety. Their everyday life is one of abject misery. They are hungry almost all the time. They are surviving a bleak, freezing winter sleeping mostly outdoors and they are constantly having to avoid being abducted and eaten by the bloodthirsty gangs who have taken to terrorising the lands. To make matters even worse (apparently still possible) the man is dying of a disease that makes him cough up blood. Unspecified, of course.
Occasionally they have a stroke of good luck and find food or water and this sustains them through periods of starvation. In one instance they stumble across a bunker where every precaution had been apparently taken against the oncoming drama and where food, warm clothes and ammunition are stocked ceiling to floor. Elsewhere, the father uncovers a water tank. When they aren’t finding help, they find horror instead. They enter a building where people are being held captive and eaten piece by piece. In another location, they stumble across the still-roasting body of a newborn infant. All the while, the father reminds the son that they are the good people, and that they carry ‘the fire’. Which is just as well, because as a reader you need all the reassurance that you can get.
Hope in The Road
For such a miserable scenario, it certainly makes a compelling read, as you are desperate to find out if in fact there is any decency left in this world that is so alien and yet so familiar. It’s almost gospel in the world of fiction that anyone with a cough ends up dead by the end of the story and this is no exception, You see the writing on the wall and really, what you want to know is if the boy will be OK. For the boy is what is truly good about the story; sensitive, loving and always appalled by the horrors that his father has long since become inured to, he reminds us of the power of an open heart.
There’s a strong undercurrent of faithful and faithless in the story, lending it a rather Christian element. Father and Son follow ‘the road’, another term perhaps for being on some kind of path, a theory that bears out when you consider that the man and the boy are at great pains to not become like the rest of society, who rob and eat people wherever they go. At the end of the story, when the boy is left alone and somehow manages to find the only other decent people left in the world, a man tells him that very few people survive the road that they have been using for many months, if not years. And it seems unlikely that after so many years of famine, no one else had managed to find the hidden supply bunker or the concealed tank of water that the man uncovers. It’s as if there’s a suggestion that goodness is rewarded; the pair do seem to have a lot of good luck. And the fish image that the story ends on could be interpreted as a religious one. Christ, after all, is often symbolised by a fish.
You pretty much have to read right until the end of the book to be rewarded with this aquatic glimmer of hope, but it’s as potent as it is mysterious.
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
Perhaps, he seems to be saying, the fish is still there, as it was before man wrecked everything. Perhaps there is still a chance for mankind.
However, if all of that seems a bit too much to swallow, there’s the thread of hope that runs through the whole book in the form of the father’s love for his son. That he has taught the boy how to use the gun on himself if necessary and saved a single bullet for that gruesome task, that he frequently goes without warmth in order to keep his son sheltered in spite of the fact that he himself is dying, and that he doesn’t die until he senses that they have come to the right place, all go to show that as long as there is unconditional love in the world, there will always be hope.