The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I love an American road trip book – not sure if it is a genre, maybe as a quest or escapism with a bit of soul searching involved. The point is often to ‘find’ yourself or to find the ‘real’ America whilst on the open road or in historical fiction on the wagon train or the train itself. It is all part of the Great American Dream but this book is the American nightmare.

A man and boy are on the road walking after some catastrophic natural phenomena. The sky is grey and clouded and the land is covered in grey ash. There are earthquakes and in the distance the lights of things burning. We know it is bad because the boy and man are on the constant search for food and water, living a life where there is no way of feeding yourself other than what you can take from others and we know this can’t last forever. Food will run out. Walking alongside them is death – both theirs and others. If other people are met, they can’t be sure they won’t be raped or eaten.

During this journey the relationship between the father and son, neither is ever named, is shown to be close and loving with the boy taking on the role of a conscience for the man – we are the good guys, aren’t we? Or pointing out when people are scared or hungry. There are glimmers of hope in this relationship as they strive to retain their humanity in a world where they can never unsee what they have seen. ‘Carrying the fire’ is a shorthand way of saying that they have purpose and are good.

Just as they seem to be starving, food is found in abandonned houses and cellars as are blankets and fire wood. At one point they come across a bunker fully equipped to live a length of time hidden and this is a sign that things are going to get worse. The boy starts to inisist that his father also has some of whatever he has including his last ever can of coca cola. Such symbolism. As we move through the book the boy starts to understand that he is the future and the inevitability of his father’s death – the only thing we can be certain of. But there is also the death of language. If we can’t see birds or colours how will we remember the names of them. And once we lose language, we start to lose the ability to think because we think in words.

Towards the end the father calls the boy ‘Papa’ – the ramblings of a fevered man or the change-over of roles because this is what the man has been training the boy to do for the whole journey.

The voice of a loving father is maintained throughout the book until the end – survival is all.

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