I read The Road, Entertainment Weekly’s pick for the best book of the past 25 years.
Entertainment Weekly named Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as the best book of the past 25 years. And, sadly, I’d never even heard of it. So I decided to check it out.
To catch people up, here’s a brief summary. A father and son are traveling through post-apocalyptic America. They are two of the last remaining refugees after an unnamed crisis. They have to avoid sadistic, deviant gangs and scavenge for food. They are following a road, toward the coast, under the blind hope that some type of better life will await them there.
Here are my thoughts on the book. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
1 | A period piece
My first impression: Did an editor miss the punctuation there? My second impression: Oh, I get it, it’s very stream-of-consciousness so he dips in and out of punctuation. Then I realized there were no chapters, it’s just one long, 280-page chapter. And, as I read the book, I realized: This was all thematic. A very clever way of making the physical act of writing mirror the endlessness and erraticness of the post-apocalyptic world.
2 | Introducing the characters
McCarthy does a spectacular job of making you care about the characters, instantly. Just in a tiny dialogue exchange on the third page, you’re in. Simply this:
The boy turned in his blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said. I’m right here. I know.
It’s so minimalisticly perfect.
3 | Not enough exposition?
As much as I admire McCarthy for not falling into the must-please-everyone trap of revealing what the apocalyptic crisis was… I really, really wanted to know what happened to the world. What made the world covered in ash, killing the ecosystem, the animals and almost all the humans? How did the man, his son and his wife survive? What have they been up to in the previous years? But he didn’t tell us. He also didn’t tell us what happened to one of the bullets from the gun. We’re left to figure that out ourselves. And what we concoct is so personal to us that it’s really more powerful and vivid than anything he could’ve written.
4 | Waiting for the Road
I got a strong Waiting For Godot vibe from the book… and I know it’s on purpose. Their lives are repetitive, simple, and driven by a blind hope. That hope, and their reliance on each other, is what keeps them alive. I think The Road is a modernizing of Waiting For Godot.
5 | A real look at the world after the apocalpyse
One of the strongest things The Road accomplishes is a very real look at what would probably happen after an extinction-type event. The world would become uninhabitable. It would be a mix of violent, primitive gangs and scavenging, hiding refugees. People would fight to survive, for each other, out of faith. That makes the book even more frightening: This. Could. Happen. It could happen tomorrow, and this could be me.
6 | The quickest depressing read out there
Even though the book is one long, rambling chapter… even though the lack of structure can make it hard to stick with… and even though it gets repetitive… I still read the entire thing in 24 hours. I couldn’t stop. I really wanted to see what would happen at the coast.
7 | The cat’s in the cradle
The Road is an absolutely incredible look at the father-son relationship. The dynamic between the father and son is so realistic, you can’t help but put yourself there. It’s definitely the kind of book that makes you want to call your father.
8 | The moral compass
I like that, throughout the book, while the man leads the survival effort, the boy continues to keep their morality centered. Because, throughout the book, the man makes increasingly savage decisions… peaking when he isn’t content just getting his stuff back from a robber, but insisting on leaving him for dead, too… but the boy continues to bring them back to being “the good guys.” Carrying the fire, as he says. And I like that because I think that’s a fairly strong statement on parenthood and human relationships on the whole… not just in the context of surviving in a post-apocalyptic anarchy.
9 | Ecology
The book is a fascinating statement on ecology, and just what kind of an impact it would have if we did destroy the environment. In The Road there is no sun or moon. There are no animals. There is no food growing. The people have to walk around with their faces covered to avoid breathing in the ash-filled air. There’s a very deep pro-biosphere statement that’s not-so-hidden here. And it’s a good one.
10 | Wait, there’s a movie version?
I’m glad I didn’t know about the movie version of The Road coming out later this year. Because I really didn’t picture Viggo Mortensen as the man. He’s Aragon. And I’m hoping that a beard, a different accent and some high-quality acting will help distract us from that when this movie does come out.
11 | On faith
Of all the themes in the book, the one that lingers the most is the statement on faith. What to live for. Why we try to survive. And the value of having faith in something… and sharing that faith with the people closest to you… to keep moving forward. And at the end, when the boy is on his own, he keeps on fighting because of the faith he and his father shared. Once again, I think this is a theme that applies, very directly, to our lives outside of the book too.
Overall, I think the book is stunning… it finds a way to be one of the strongest optimistic opuses on faith and love while being set against a completely despondent, pessimistic backdrop. High quality. I’m not sure if it’s the best book of the past 25 years, but it’s got to be up there. On the 11 point scale, I give it a 10 out of 11.