The first time I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I hated it. The reaction was visceral. I bought the book based on the cover description, read the first few pages and became angry. My mind wanted to spit it out like rotten meat.
Several times since, I have thought about that short read and tried in vain to remember what it was that turned me off with such resolute quickness. The best I have come up with so far is the brevity of the prose. I remember thinking that it was an affectation, something the author wore like a handlebar mustache in an attempt to impress other people with dubious facial hair choices. I thought of it that way because, although the style is minimal and sparse, the ideas McCarthy is attempting to convey are lengthy and often mundane. I have always been a snob about snobbishness.
That was at least four years ago, and my instinctual hatred of this book faded. I had more and more trouble remembering why the syntax mattered. What remained with me were the things. A boy. His father. The gray sky. The road. Four years after I returned to Half Price Books in a huff and threw this book on the buy counter, I stumbled across a battered copy at Goodwill and decided to try again.
When I began reading again, the first pages were familiar to me. I hadn’t realized how well they stuck, wormed their way into my psyche. For some reason I had paired the road from the opening scene of this book with the main drag in my old hometown and it sprung up in front of me again, battered, burnt, and destroyed, nature reclaiming much of the old human interference. I was overwhelmed with an instant desire to know what had happened. Why was the world like this? It is a desire McCarthy knows he will inspire in his readers, and one that he purposely does not indulge. I assume this is because the perpetually unnamed man, our story’s protagonist, does not himself know why his world burned, and it makes sense. How likely are you to know what happened when your first inkling of the apocalypse is the lights going out? He doesn’t know where everything has gone, he only knows it is gone, and that is information enough. It tells him, and therefore us, everything we need to know, not everything we want to know. This story is not about large details. To know everything would feel wrong.
Then, when the first block of bleak, utilitarian dialogue appears on the page, I am reminded that something else in my life has changed in the last four years. I had a child. Now, I will say that I, too, dislike the type of parent who says things like, “You wouldn’t understand this unless you had a child.” When I hear something like that, my bullshit meter starts making a racket akin to an overwhelmed metal detector. What I do mean to say is that we all have experiences in life that change us, that make us understand things we didn’t before. It could be a deep friendship, or a lover, or a marriage, or a death. For me, it was the birth of my daughter and subsequent three and half years of requisite childrearing that have made me personally understand something that is very important in understanding the characters in this book. That is that there are people in the world with whom you need not exchange words to communicate. The boy and his father speak very little, and usually in somewhat repetitive, well-worn phrases that become their signatures, which is good as dialogue attribution is at a minimum. The boy is afraid. The man is afraid, too, but doesn’t say so. It is most often what is not said that conveys the deepest emotion here. It is a kind of reading between the lines of which you are either capable, or you are not. If you are not, you may well miss the whole point. I did when I first tried to read this.
The dangers of this world are real, and are what you would expect of the world following a non-supernatural apocalypse. What made this book special to me among the vast glut of post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction is its focus on and confusion over the role of love in a ravaged world. The purity of the boy’s love for his father and for his fellow man is staggering considering the horrors he has seen, and nobody is more confounded by this ability than his father, whose own love often manifests itself, out of necessity, as violence toward those who would harm his son or take from them that which sustains their life. The place of violence in love is a question with which most fathers grapple, though few will admit to that. What is clear is that he needs the boy if his humanity is to survive, and though he does not realize that outright, his near worship of his son, his references to him as divine and godlike illustrate that need as clearly as is necessary. McCarthy is using the magnifying glass of armageddon to highlight the very real struggles of fatherhood and of childhood, the thoughts that cross your mind in the dead of night and are forgotten come the dawn. What am I capable of? What can love drive me to do?
Yes, when I first picked up this book, I hated it, and I feel almost silly about that now. The Road turned a mirror on me and showed me things about myself I may have known but had not examined. It made me treasure my family. It nearly made me weep with both sadness and hopeful joy upon its conclusion. I lay wakeful at two in the morning after having finished this book and listened to my wife breathing softly next to me, and the rumble of thunder outside and wondered if I, too, would carry the fire. That is all I can ever ask from a book.