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Post apocalyptic novels are a dark, bleak and often illuminating genre but among all of these fine works and dozens more I’ve read, none compares, holds a candle to or rings such gloomy, bleak chords as does Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; all accomplished with an economy of words that is beautiful in its execution.
"The Road" is a work of stunning, savage, heartbreaking beauty. Set in the post-apocalyptic hell of an unending nuclear winter, Cormac McCarthy writes about a nameless man and his young son, wandering through a world gone crazy; bleak, cold, dark, where the snow falls down gray; moving south toward the coast, looking somewhere, anywhere, for life and warmth. Nothing grows in this blasted world; people turn into cannibals to survive. We don't know if we're looking at the aftermath of a nuclear war, or maybe an extinction level event -- an asteroid or a comet; McCarthy deliberately doesn't tell us, and we come to realize it doesn't matter anyway. Whether man or nature threw a wild pitch, the world is just as dead.
Survival in this brave new world is a dicey prospect at best; the boy and the man are subjected to sights no one should ever have to see. Every day is a scavenger hunt for food and shelter and safety from the "bad guys", the marauding gangs who enslave the weak and resort to cannibalism for lack of any other food. We are the good guys, the man assures his son. Yet in their rare encounters with other living human beings, the man resorts to primitive survivalism, refusing help to a lost child and a starving man, living only for himself and his son, who is trying to hold onto whatever humanity he has left.
Their journey to the coast is an unending nightmare through the depths of hell and the only thing that holds them together is their love for each other. When one is ready to give up, the other refuses to let him. I won't let you go into the darkness alone, the man reassures his son. But ultimately, as the boy finds out, everyone is on his own, and all you can do is keep on keeping on.
McCarthy has proven himself a master of minimalism; with a style as bleak as the stripped terrain the man and the boy travel through, but each sentence polished as a gem, he takes us into the harsh reality of a dying world. The past is gone, dead as the landscape all around them, and the present is the only reality. There is no later, McCarthy says. This is later. Deep down the man knows there is nothing better to hope for down the road, even though he keeps them both slogging down it, only to keep his son alive. And we keep slogging down that road with them, hoping against hope that around the next corner or five miles down the line, maybe there is something, anything, to make survival worthwhile.
Living in such a hell, why would anyone want to survive? The mother made her decision; she checked out long ago. We come to the end of this book totally drained, enervated, devastated, but curiously uplifted. Because as long as there is love, McCarthy tells us, maybe there is something to live for, and as the book shows us at the end, maybe there is a even little bit of hope.