Accessible as it is, the book is challenging. At least, I was challenged by it. I am used to more superficiality in my fiction. More lighthearted relationships and more artificial situations, especially where Science Fiction is concerned. I crave it like high fructose corn-syrup. Getting a story that is as real and as raw as The Road is jarring. The utter lack of adornment, down to the absence of punctuation, makes for a powerful presentation, and it emphasizes McCarthy's greatest strength: the gravity of his details. Each word has a weight that grounds you by reminding you of the mortality of the situation, or of the relationship at stake. His descriptions are poetic at times, but never florid and rarely excessive. He allows each event of the narrative to speak for itself. The necessity of self-defense, of mercy, of recovering from sickness and showing kindness to a stranger.
This is a cover that does its book justice. You can't even see the black background against the site. If you squint, you can make out McCarthy's faded name above the title though.
The core of the book is the father's love for his son. The concept of "carrying the fire," keeping humanity alive in a world that can longer sustain it, is almost incidental. Most popular post-apocalyptic fiction romanticizes the setting and uses it as an excuse for an almost fanciful feudalism. The world is too lean for governments, but somehow civilization endures. Pockets of people cultivate things, while others scavenge and others still cannibalize and pillage. There is no hope of cultivation in McCarthy's world. The ground is barren, the sun is blotted by ash, and all the animals are dead. The father is not grooming his son to be a hero, he is teaching him to remain a person, so he can die as a person. There is an important hope here, but it's a sad kind of hope. The hope of dying human as opposed to leaving the world a better place.
As you might expect, the book is not about happy endings. The fact that the book ends hopefully at all feels a little like an obligation. After such a horrifying journey, readers are desperate for some redemptive truth, and I imagine McCarthy was, too. If the father died and left the boy alone, the journey would seem meaningless, or worse yet punitive. At the same time, the father has to die to make the story complete. If the father and the son settled down somewhere, if they remained at the safe-house they found for instance, their growth would stop. If the book has a message, it is that we all have to keep moving, regardless of how difficult it is, despite the fact that we all reach a common destination. It isn't didactic. It isn't preachy. But it does have a lesson to be learned.
And here's the cover of my copy. It loses a lot with the laudatory quotes.
The story is incredibly simple, and it is simply told, and the message too is simple. If you can write as well as McCarthy, you don't need to get complicated. Even if I could write as well as McCarthy, I will never be able to tell a story like this, though. I would be too concerned with who the man was before the world died. I would need to address the apocalypse. I could not resist the urge to build cardboard civilizations, to cast the shadows of whatever war caused the catastrophe, and to anthropomorphize this ashen world. These things don't belong in McCarthy's tale though. They aren't real enough.