Maybe it’s that I’m feeling overly generous as we approach the holiday season, or maybe it’s because I’ve chosen a lot of fucking great books recently, but I’m feeling like I’ve lived multiple lives this year. Last weekend, I spent 5 hours trudging through a barren wasteland with a father “the man” and his son “the boy”, watching them starve, make mistakes, fight and protect each other – and the experience damn near killed me.
While definitely not the most dramatic bleak novel I’ve ever read (I’m looking at you, ‘The Bad Box’ by Harvey Click), it has a perpetual hopelessness to it that renders you completely exhausted by the end. So, in case you’ve already read it and this is bringing up flashbacks for you, I’m going to break here for a moment.
Nope. Only made it worse. Sorry.
In this novel, the particularly long and winding road is 287 pages worth and has, fittingly, neither a real beginning nor an end. We join the characters months, years already into the journey of survival, moving slowly but surely down a road to the south after realising that they can’t survive a winter in the harsh conditions. It’s post-apocalyptic but we know no details of the cataclysmic event that has occurred – and we understand too, as they do, that it doesn’t matter.
All that matters is getting the boy to the next day, alive.
This simplicity is mirrored in the language, too – yet another thing that allows us to be immersed in the world. There is no flowery detail, no joy to be found in the writing itself. The sentences are short, factual and to the point. No time can be wasted, no extra energy spent when those simple sentences will do. It is one of the most effective examples of the writing style mirroring the plot – or, perhaps the other way around. I’ll need to read more of McCarthy to find out.
CUT FOR SPOILERS
(but come on, if you wait over 13 years like me to read this 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction award, then well – we deserved it)
We know early on that the man has developed a cough and feels sure that he is dying. He spends the final months trying to teach his young, kind, trusting son to take care of himself, preparing him for a time when he will have to be alone. And this is the harrowing, perpetual state of existence that we find ourselves in as readers, watching them continue on against all odds, even as all hope is being stripped from them.
The man cannot bring himself to kill the boy, though he does teach him how to fire the gun in the event that he be captured by cannibals. And while this ‘cowardice’ is the reason that he gives for continuing on, it’s also clear that he needs him, and hopes that one day his son can live in safety. A hope that there are people out there as kind and good as his own son is – while also struggling with the knowledge that the precious quality is what is likely to get him killed, when everyone is scared and has their own lives to protect.
As the boy tells him one day, after hearing another of the man’s stories: “Those stories are not true […] in the stories we’re always helping people and we never help people.” The innocence is so pure, and his conviction and intentions so good that we, as readers, are torn alongside the father in wanting to keep the beautiful nature of his son intact – while also reading on, terrified and understanding the peril of putting kindness before your own personal safety in such a world.
For me, this was the most interesting question in the novel. Do we want the boy to survive if it means that he becomes as harsh and cold as the survivors we know are roaming around? The ones that are roasting newborn babies on spits, the ones keeping skeletal prisoners in basements to eat? If these are the people who survive the human race, would we rather be a part of it, or not? Again and again in the presence of these characters, we are taught not to trust and not to let our guard down. Society is broken and people are lost – but are we being taught something by McCarthy when, after hearing of a small child being left behind, we read: “We could go back, the boy said softly. It’s not so far. It’s not too late.”
And then, at the end – the man is gone, the boy stays with him for 3 days. Adults approach and the boy stands, seemingly still naive and trusting, telling them that his father is dead and he is alone. We read it in horror, knowing about the dangers, the cannibals, the thieves, knowing everything that the man has sacrificed to get the boy this far. (I was gripping the book so tight at this point that I actually bent the pages.)
But the adults, at least on the surface, appear to want to help. They kindly cover the man’s body and offer the boy a family, to come on the road with them. It feels like we’re being taught a lesson – that by refusing to let the world and experiences turn him cold, the boy manages to find other people who have done the same.
We are presented with a question: What is more important to us – our lives, or our humanity?
So perhaps I’m using a rather less eloquent way of saying it, compared to other reviewers, but – fucking hell. Oh, McCarthy, how you took my heart and stomped it into the ground.
Please, in the comments tell me what you got out of this book.
Were there other lessons that I missed? Any other levels of social commentary that went straight over my head?