We all have a very good idea of how the world is going to end: amid torrents of sulfur and brimstone, tidal waves of flame, an armageddon of carnage. Apocalypse might come in the form of an incurable pandemic, a cataclysmic meteor hitting the Earth, or some destructive variant of Mother Nature’s wrath that will cauterize the terrain and wipe out most of humankind. This will usher in the collapse of governments and societies as we know it, and the unfortunate few who will be left behind will be forced to take up arms and relapse into a primitive and pernicious brutality in order to survive. Even these, however, will come to pass as the inevitable destruction of everything and anything becomes more and more imminent.
Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, The Road, undertakes the difficult and ultimately bleak task of contemplating the end of, well, the world. In this novel, McCarthy presents to us a dying Father and his Son, and their heartbreaking struggles in the irrevocably damaged landscape of a post-apocalyptic, unnamed country that has succumbed to an abominable nuclear winter. Armed with a pistol that has only two bullets and chased by degenerate marauders, other survivors who have turned to thievery and cannibalism, the Father and Son plod together desperately to the coast on the far side of the country, on the blind and perhaps foolish hope that they will be able to glimpse something—anything—other than gray snow, melted stumps of buildings, mummified corpses on the road, and ashes of what was once civilization.
The Road, like McCarthy’s other works such as Blind Meridian or No Country for Old Men, is a challenging read. Rivaling the hand of even the foremost master of apocalyptic writing, Samuel Beckett, McCarthy’s minimalist style, influenced greatly by Hemingway, shines brightly and consistently throughout the novel, but which in turn makes it deceptively simple. He paints the calamitous state of things in stark, unflinching language that is terrifyingly beautiful and endurable only because of its integrity, as when he describes the overcast days and nights as “sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening…. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees.”
Underneath his lucid, lilting prose, his spartan paragraphs, and his short, seemingly innocuous episodes lies perhaps the greatest truth of the book: that life, especially a dying life, is hardly neat or simple. On the contrary, the closer one stands to the face of death, the more morally complex one’s thoughts and decisions become. Indeed, as the Father comes to realize that his bloody coughing fits will soon take him, he begins to seriously reconsider if his moral obligation to protect his son extends to killing him instead of letting him be eaten by the cannibals around them. In the end, a father’s got to do what a father’s got to do.
Perhaps it is on this unabashedly moral point that The Road succeeds immensely. It is not merely some Camusian commentary on the bleakness and futility of human existence. Evil exists, and in this context, evil is triumphant. In this make-believe but thoroughly believable world, visions of a society and its people reduced to rubble and moral bankruptcy are absurd. What is even more absurd, however, is how two people’s love for each other can see them through even the most nightmarish things the world throws at them, and how it can sustain them enough to believe that their years-long journey will end in anything but despair and defeat. As one reads the book, one begins to wonder where the long and difficult journey in the novel will end. At the end of the road, one realizes that it only leads to one place: hope.