Slowly, I'm catching up on some long-delayed reading, including Cormac McCarthy's The Road, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.
The premise is simple -- the world as we know it has come to an end, brought about by an unnamed catastrophic event that has left cities burned, the oceans grey, the sky filled with ash, and the survivors scrabbling for survival with little food and no semblance of civilization. Through this post-apocalyptic world pass a father and his young son, both unnamed, following a road as they attempt to make their way toward the sea the hope of surviving the winter cold. It is a harrowing journey as they face starvation, illness, marauders, and cannibals. In other hands, it might have come across as a Saturday matinee thriller or an excuse for action set pieces but when presented by McCarthy, the prose and images are chilling and breathtaking with not a word wasted.
While the burnt world provides the backdrop, the focus at all times is on the relationship between father and son. The mother, seen only in brief snatches of memory, is nothing more than a memory herself, having committed suicide in the days or weeks after the world came to an end and her son was born. Now, the father seeks to protect his son from the dangers and images around them, all the while knowing that his own time may be cut short. The son, guarded and understanding of the dangers, is nevertheless a sign of hope and compassion in a world bereft of such things.
It is the bond between father and son, their spare, unpunctuated dialogue, and their unwavering devotion to the other that save us as readers within this savage wreck of a land. We follow them, hope for them, worry for them as they progress on a journey that is equal parts physical, emotional, and spiritual. Like our companions on this march to the sea, at no time are we able to truly relax. Yes, we breathe a sigh of relief at their small victories -- the son tasting Coca-Cola for the first time, staving off starvation by finding a field of wrinkled apples, playing checkers in an abandoned bomb shelter, taking a hot bath for the first time in months -- but always with the understanding that such triumphs are transitory and that they must rejoin the road and forge on.
When I started writing this entry, I was going to say that The Road is not a book you should pick up if you're feeling profoundly depressed or suicidal. However, I think I was wrong in this somewhat flip assessment. In fact, the journey -- physical and metaphysical -- taken by Father and Son is one that I realize in retrospect might resonate especially for readers who are in their own state of despair. In the end, the story is bittersweet, filled with hope and sacrifice and aching loss. It's not easy and the light doesn't always dispel the dark. But at its end, The Road does leave room for hope and a glimmer of light, even in an ash-filled world, and sometimes that's enough to help us find our way.