Winner of the Pulitzer prize, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 The Road is powerful storytelling. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the stark reality of the setting highlights the strength, love, and courage a father and son must sustain to not only stay alive, but remain true to each other in trying times. The mood dark and bleak like so many of McCarthy’s books, the speculative wasteland the duo cross only benefits from the author’s deft pen, striking harder at his thematic goals and telling a bittersweet story in the process.
The Road, like McCarthy’s prose, is simple but highly effective. The earth having been engulfed in a catastrophe that killed the majority of people, it is the story of a never-named father and son as they make their way across the destroyed land. Ashes swirling in the air, the two push their shopping cart of meager possessions down empty roads and highways, heading south where they believe a group is forming a new government. Grueling to exhaustion, the pair spend their days with one eye over their shoulder wary of the evils that roam the land, the other on their stomachs trying to avoid starvation. The father’s belief in family tested greater than any parent’s rightfully should, every ounce of strength is required if he and his son are to avoid the lawless gangs and find hope once again.
Like Margaret Atwood and her narrow view of genre fiction, McCarthy has likewise implied his dislike of The Road’s categorization as science fiction. Naturally debatable, the fact remains that the novel’s setting is as post-apocalyptic as the sub-genre gets. Along with the imagery of falling ash and empty highways, the majority of people who survived the world-razing catastrophe are reduced to animal status, scrapping for food, shelter, and even companions. Macabre remnants of mankind await in run-down homes, bands of bandits roam the land, and feverish eyes burn in the dark—all the scenes the boy and his father encounter poster material for the sub-genre.
McCarthy’s claim/hope that The Road is not genre fiction is founded on the belief his book has less entertainment and more substance than such works as Stephen King’s The Stand or Max Brook’s World War Z. And he’s right. Theme burns a hole through the novel. Fighting off bandits, scrounging for food, and staying warm, everything the man does is for the benefit of his son. And it is precisely these sacrifices which press home the importance of parenthood and family in tones that any zombie apocalypse never could.
In the end, The Road is one of the best sci-fi books of the new millennium and something every father should read in preparation for children. Unsurprisingly overlooked by speculative fiction awards but lauded by literary pundits, McCarthy’s background as a writer of literary realism plays a strong role in imbuing the novel with simple but strong dialogue and descriptions that fully flesh out the otherwise post-apocalypse setting. Fully in the vein of Walter J. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, George Stewart’s Earth Abides, even Camus’ The Plague, McCarthy’s novel, whether he wants to admit it or not, is science-fiction—literary sci-fi, that is—at its best. Readers can only hope that other writers of realism take more dips into the genre.
(An afterword on the film: Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s novel is amazing. He remains faithful to the story throughout, including focus on characterization, plot development, bleak setting, and the overall atmosphere of desperation and despair driving those still alive in the haggard world. Viggo Mortensen is solid as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son is promising in his big screen debut. The novel is still better, but Hillcoat has nothing to be ashamed of in transcribing the story to the screen, the film well worth watching.)