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Onyx reviews: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The story of The Road is simple and straightforward. A man and his son wander the roads of America, heading south and east in search of a warmer climate several years after an apocalyptic event destroys civilization. They push their few precious belongings in a rickety shopping cart, like the homeless people they are. They aren't the last souls on earth, but they're among the precious few remaining.

Their precise location isn't given, but they are heading either for the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Coast. Likewise, the exact nature of the disaster is never spelled out, but it involved a flash of light and enough heat to melt the tar on the road. A fine layer of gray ash covers almost everything, and a cloud of dust blocks the sun.

The cataclysm isn't recent—the boy was born a few months after the end of civilization and he's now old enough to read and to have consideration for his father's feelings. Perhaps ten years old. The unnamed boy's mother died in the interim—by her own hand. She was consumed by despair about the fate of humanity. Nothing can ever be the same again. She also feared death by starvation or being raped and eaten by the other survivors.

Her despair is well founded. Society is in a shambles. In some post-apocalyptic fantasies, survivors band together to recreate what they had before. Not so with The Road. No one can be trusted. Any time the boy and his father—also unnamed—encounter someone during their travels, they hide. They haven't spoken to another human being in a year. Their shopping cart is fitted with a rearview mirror lest someone sneak up on them from behind. The father carries a pistol with two bullets—to be used in a worst-case scenario to take their own lives.

Food is in short supply and cannibalism is on the rise. Winter is coming and the survivors are often miserably wet and cold. Their clothing is in poor repair, especially their shoes, and every house or store they pass has long been picked clean. Most animals are gone, depriving the survivors of another source of food. Many of the remaining canned products are dubious. Any house that hasn't been burned to the ground might harbor danger. This is the whimper at the end of the world—long after the bang.

The boy can only imagine what the world was like in the "before" times. His father tries to paint visual pictures of things like sunlight, trains, highway traffic, and a harmonious society. The boy will be the living receptacle of the memory of civilization.

The boy also doesn't know what it is to trust other people, but his moral compass is purer than his father's, in spite of the horrible things he has witnessed. When they abandon other people, leaving them to a certain death, because they have nothing to share—barely enough food for themselves, and at times none at all—the boy struggles to believe his father when he says they are the good guys.

At its core, The Road is a paternal love story. The man is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his son survives. He is obviously far sicker than he admits to his son. He couldn't save his wife—it was within her power to decide to give up—so he invests everything into his son's emotional and physical well being. He sees it as a God-given mission.

The book has already won the Pulitzer Prize and now features Oprah's stamp of approval on the front cover. It is written in a terse, primitive style. No quotation marks, for example, and apostrophes only when necessary to avoid ambiguity. The narrative is episodic—short sections with frequent space breaks and no chapters or subsections. It's a fast read, but no less profound for its brevity and simplicity. In the hands of a less poetic writer, The Road would be a bleak, dreary tale.

People have attempted to label The Road as science fiction or horror, but it's neither. There's precious little science in the book, and certainly nothing futuristic beyond whatever caused the end of civilization, and that isn't described. Any horror is of the type found in any suspense novel—people being cruel to other people. Nothing supernatural and only the terrors associated with the struggle to survive. There are no zombies here—though the shuffling man who is struck by lightning comes close.

It's also hard to say if The Road is a pessimistic book or a realistic one. Every time it seems like the travelers are doomed, they stumble across provisions that allow them to go on—for a while, at least. Certainly, McCarthy's view of how humanity would behave under extreme conditions is grim, but it rings true. Every man or woman for himself. Groups that form out of necessity rather than trust. Prolonged survival of the human race seems unlikely. It's definitely not an optimistic novel, though it does end on a note of hope.

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