4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Published in 2006. This Edition: Picador, 2007.

Winner of the 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.

The Times’ Book of the Decade.

Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, 2006.

“I will do what I promised, he whispered. No matter what. I will not send you into the darkness alone.”

A man and his son travel through a burnt and ravaged America, moving slowly towards the coast. On their journey, they are beset by threatening, sickening remnants of their dying landscape. They forage for food and supplies with varying degrees of failure and success. Their main objects of quotidian significance are a squeaky-wheeled shopping cart and a gun running low on bullets.

The unnamed father-son pair inch laboriously towards the warmer sea climate, since they both know that another frigid winter in their current environment will be the death of them. The father intermittently hacks up blood in heaving spasms, signs of an illness that he attempts to hide from his child. His wife has deserted them through suicide, her self-perceived last humane act in a world that was crumbling into fire and ruin, even before her son was born into it.

The man and his son have no dearth of reasons to be feckless, foul, feral. Instead, perhaps slightly implausibly (but only to the jaded), they are good. They affirm to each other that they ‘carry the fire’, that they are lightbringers, of a kind, in a time when thick clouds of falling ash darken the skies and men dine on each other – literally – to fend off starvation.

What makes The Road remarkable? Why does it stand out from the groan-worthy stack of literary post-apocalyptica that fawningly reuses the same three and a half tired tropes with fervent aplomb, gore and sexy zombie mayhem? This book isn’t like that. There’s no tastefully deformed protagonist, boot planted atop a still-spasming cryptwalker, musket smoke melding into a chemical induced fog. There are no blade-brandishing, half cyborg, half humanoid babes with rapier wits and… well, rapiers?

The Road can seem pretty damned irritating at first, with its truncated sentences, abrupt pauses, stops and starts, its jerky narrative openings, which also feature a distinct disregard for contraction-specific apostrophes. Once you accustom yourself to the manner in which McCarthy tells the story, however, it is unlikely that you’d want it told any other way. The prose is not just sheer minimalistic brilliance—that on its own would be accomplishment enough. The narration is shot through with spare, elegantly-wrought images, recollections and half-starved thoughts from the father which stun doubly: for their enchanting and harrowing symbolism, and for their startling beauty. The father’s ruminations are borne of starvation, hypothermia, desperation, and threaded together with an undeniable nostalgia for times without atrocities, in a way that provokes tears… tears and thoughts of what our own wonderings might be.

Who will benefit the most, from a reading of this novel?

A mother. An environmentalist. A thinker of quiet and often desperate thoughts. A person who thinks environmentalism is a waste of time. An over eater. A carrier of light. A thief. A person who has been close to death. A person who barely considers death. A person who cannot conceive of a time where money and books will be useless. An anti conspiracy-theorist.

Anyone who thinks that humanity is reckless. Anyone who thinks that humanity is visionary.

A father and a son.

I cannot remember encountering a book that has so strongly deserved to be read, for all its tender warning, its horrific spectacle, its imaginings of things that are awfully credible, for a very long time. This is a book that deserves your attention. My only regret? That I didn’t read it sooner.

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”