The Book That F**ked Me Up — ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy

Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that. Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

Few books have ever got into my head and stayed there in the way McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ has. Written in 2006, I found it in my local library a few years later, picked it up on a whim and wasn’t really expecting all that much from it. What a fool I was. It remains to this day the most haunting, beautiful, desperate and heartbreaking novel I’ve ever read.

‘The Road’ is the story of a father and his young son travelling across a post-apocalyptic America hoping to find some place of sanctuary, some years after an extinction event has ruined the earth. The characters remain nameless throughout the book, referred to only as “the man” and “the boy”.

This desolate world has been plundered and reaped of all resources. Fresh food is a distant memory. Starvation is kept at bay by eating salvaged canned goods. The man pushes a shopping cart filled with their meagre belongings. A motorcycle mirror fixed to one side provides some necessary sentinel, a reminder of the perils the pair face daily. Their weapon, a revolver, only carries two rounds. Man and boy both know that there may come a time when they might need to turn the weapon on themselves.

Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die.

McCarthy’s tone and voice is deliberate and unique. His short, staccato sentences fire shots of emotion to both head and heart. His style is bleak and haunting, punctuated with moments of dreamlike beauty and genuine love. McCarthy finds ways to say terrifying truths with a delicate clarity. Some critics have argued that ‘The Road’ lacks plot, but this was never meant to be a fast-paced action thriller like that which we have often come to expect in the wake of other post 9/11, post-apocalyptic tales such as ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘One Second After‘. This is an intense slow burn, punctuated by short, sharp shocks.

‘The Road’ is driven completely by its characters, their relationships, and the brutality humans are willing to unleash, allegedly in the name of species survival. Food is scarce and resources are limited, but the biggest threat comes from other people, especially those who have turned to cannibalism. Around every corner might lurk a murdering convoy of road agents, marauders or “bloodcults”. It is truly a dog-eat-dog world.

My job is to take care of you. I was appointed by God to do that … We are the good guys.

In this world, however, the roads are one of the few things which have not been destroyed. The road itself symbolises transience and danger, the man and the boy spend their time travelling south in the hope of finding a better place to live, keenly aware that their survival is not guaranteed. The man is shown to be unwell, his health deteriorates as the story moves on. Despite this, the man is persistent, and his endless journey on the road is a symbol of his dogged determination and endurance.

Arguably, it is the man’s misanthropy and distrust of all others which keep them alive. In this apparently morally bankrupt society, the man impresses upon the boy that no matter what happens, he must “carry the fire”. He should always keep moving, whatever the obstacles, and ensure that human life prevails. In this godless world, it is up to them to be “the good guys”.

Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.

There are two key, shocking events in ‘The Road’ which to speak of them would be to reveal major plot spoilers. Suffice to say, they involve harrowing acts of cannibalism which may be some of the worst you can imagine. The horror is made more vivid by the realisation that the monsters of this story are not mindless zombies nor rabid creatures, they are morally abhorrent human beings, locked in the firm belief that their actions are not only necessary but rational. While searching a house for supplies, the man opens a locked cellar. As he reveals, and eventually comprehends, the devastating truth within, it heralds the death knoll for any hope he might have had of finding civilised society, and it speaks volumes about the man’s own capacity for compassion.

I read The Road’ as a relatively new mum to young boys. The mother in ‘The Road’ is revealed to have committed suicide very early in the story, unable to keep fighting or remain positive in such a harsh and desperate world. I understood her sense of loss, her helplessness and despair, but I always hated how McCarthy wrote of her choice. It made her seem weak, but I don’t believe that. The mother’s role is short but critical. It highlights essential differences between the parental characters and explores how sacrifices are made. It played on my insecurities as a parent that a day might come when I was unable to protect my children. It emphasised the enormity of the responsibilities I had, and brought with it an acute reminder of my own mortality.

When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.

I was never able to fully connect with the man, although I admired his determination and loyalty to his role as protector and teacher of the boy. It took me a long time to realise that so many of his actions are a direct result of his unprocessed grief. Resilience through trauma. Anger from pain. Having been unable to save his wife, he focuses solely on keeping his son alive. At absolutely any cost, even to himself.

This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job.

There is no room for mistakes. Indeed, when he makes one, when his mission is almost thwarted because he lets down his guard, he delivers retribution in the cruelest possible way. It’s shocking, the escalation of his actions, but it is also understandable. As his failing health becomes a driving force behind his increasing desperation, we understand why he uses deadly force to save the boy from marauders. We understand when he closes the cellar door and runs away. When their cart is stolen and the thief discovered, the man crosses the line from self-preservation to cold-blooded revenge. It marks a moralistic turning point for the character from which there is no turning back.

How would we act? We ask ourselves. Would we be better? Could we do what needed to be done? Would we be “good” in the face of such pervasive “evil”?

He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.

The ending is brutal and beyond heartbreaking. But it ends in the only way it can. There is no deus ex machina twist, God is not waiting in the wings to put things right. The world the man once knew is long gone. It exists only in his dreams, and can never be recovered. The boy knows no different, has never known a world that was not full of death and fear. And yet, despite the ugliness and desperation, the boy is good. The boy has hope. The man did exactly as he promised the boy, and God, he would. He took care of him. He kept him safe.