Deep Dive: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Books, movies, and online content are more than just the words and images that we read, see and hear. They are also the emotions we experience and the response we have to those emotions. In this first Deep Dive, I hope to communicate what I experience as a consumer of media more than provide an analysis of media itself. No one reads a recipe to a holiday meal for its prose, nor do they eat that food only for its nutritional value. A holiday meal's purpose is to gather people around a shared experience by which they are fed physically, emotionally, and often spiritually. Much literature and entertainment we consume serve a similar purpose: to gather people around a shared experience that provides nourishment of some kind.
With that being said, let us dive together into The Road.
I will admit that I have dropped the ball on my reading this year. In 2019 I read almost one book a week. Last year was not as prolific, but I was also consumed with writing The Silence of God. This year, my Kindle and bookshelf lay abandoned as I have had to get a new job and relocate my family twice in less than six months. There was no time for me to sit and read at my leisure until just a few weeks ago. When I did crack open a book for the first time this year, I was compelled to consume everything about it that I could.
What inspired me to return to the world of literature was listening to an Art of Manliness podcast about Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning work: The Road. At the time, I had no idea the conversation would lead me down a rabbit hole. Since that podcast, I have watched the movie adaptation, read the novel, listened to at least two other podcasts about the book, and have read several articles and forum posts about The Road.
Synopsis of The Road:
The following contains spoilers to both the book and movie.
You will find no semblance of warmth in either the book or the movie. The plot is set during Life's final days on planet Earth and follows a man as he and his son travel south to survive another bitter winter before the end of everything. I dare not mention the horrors they encounter along the way. They survive these perils and exhort themselves to continue with integrity despite their hopeless circumstances. The man works to prepare the boy so that he might survive on his own and to "carry the fire," the book's metaphor for all that remains of humanity's goodness.
The father and son reach the south and the coast but do not find living there to be any easier. In the end, the man must say goodbye to his son in one of the most heartbreaking scenes written in any book. The boy is left alone to search for tender to fuel the fire he and the man carried together, and the story ends.
Both the book and movie are sparse in typical storytelling content. Only one character is given a name and even then the man says that is not his real name. In a similar way, the cities, towns, and roads remain nameless. A date for when the story is set is not given, nor is a definitive timeline of events. The scarcity of this content serves two purposes: 1) it reflects the barren world in which the characters live so that the reader can also experience emptiness; 2) it boils the story down to its absolute essential elements. Names, places, and time no longer matter in a world where humanity must scratch and claw for survival like animals. What does matter is that in this hellish landscape that Cormac McCarthy has created, there is a man and a boy who has chosen to live.
Taking the Plunge:
"...humanity will always be capable of finding a will to live..."
I read The Road several years ago after my first attempt at reading McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I found The Road to be a better entry point to his style, but it is not a more gentle ride. Instead of returning to the ordeal of reading the book, I opted to watch the movie after I listened to the podcast. Starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the father and son, respectively, the movie follows the source material closer than any other cinematic adaptation of a book I've seen. Movie-goers are spared from only the book's most grotesque images, but it is otherwise honest to the original work.
After watching the movie adaptation of The Road I had to re-read the novel. A prevalent theme in the story is the unreliability of one's memory, so I felt compelled to test my recollections from my first encounter with the book. On my second trip into the world of The Road, I found many elements I missed the first time and also read through the book much faster. It is not a large book and only took about 3 hours to consume; not a long time at all considering the movie has a runtime of two hours.
Compared to the movie, the book is darker, to say the least. But the darkness is not unbearable. If the man and the boy can carry their fire in such a terrible world, so too can the reader finish the story. There is hope in the story, little as it may be, and goodness. If all that one gets from reading The Road is that humanity will always be capable of finding a will to live then their time was well spent.
"One of the universal difficulties of raising children is that people that grew up in a world that no longer exists must prepare children for a world that is yet to come."
Once the book was read, I returned to the podcast that was the catalyst for the whole experience. The podcast is an interview with Steven Frye, a literary scholar and author of Understanding Cormac McCarthy. During the interview, Bret McKay (the podcast host) had a strong emotional response to one of the closing scenes in the book. A response I did not share, and by which I was both confused and envious. However, it did help me realize one of the biggest things I missed about The Road on both my first and second readings. The story is not about the end of the world, continuing in the face of abstract adversity, or pondering the meaning of life and the existence of a god. Those elements are present, but instead, I think the Road in its most simple form is about being a parent.
This point was made clear when I listened to another podcast about The Road. One of the two hosts of this show did not have children at the time of the recording and had a different response to various scenes in the book than his co-host who had children. I don't think the different responses are a coincidence, but instead indicative of the underlying design of the book. The Road was written by Cormac McCarthy to fathers in specific, but also parents in general. I will lay out my case below-
1. The world changes when the son is born
Some unnamed calamity has befallen the world in which The Road takes place. Most speculate that this disaster was either a meteor strike, volcanic eruption, or nuclear war. This global change precedes the birth of the boy, who must be born at home because the world as it was is no more. While no child has yet to be born after a literal apocalyptic event, the truth is that a child's arrival changes everything about their parent's world. After the birth of a child, a man and woman will forever be a father and mother. Even in the best of circumstances, raising and protecting a child is difficult; McCarthy just uses the end of the world to add emphasis to this fact.
2. The man is from a world the boy will never know
Because the boy was born post-apocalypse he will never know what the world was like, and there is nothing the man can do to change this. Again, the author is using a dramatic circumstance to reveal what is true for everyone. Children can never know what it was like to grow up as their parents did, and likewise, parents cannot raise their children in the world that they grew up in. Throughout the story, the man sees himself as an alien in his child's world: a feeling all parents experience. One of the universal difficulties of raising children is that people that grew up in a world that no longer exists must prepare children for a world that is yet to come. This is a primary difficulty the man in The Road is tasked to overcome.
3. Parents are the good guys
Throughout the story, the father tells his son that they are the good guys. They appear to be the only thing in the story with any good left in them, but there are two other characters in the book that could be labeled good. Both of them are fathers.
The first is the only named person in the book, Ely. He's an old man, maybe the oldest man alive at that point, and the father and son meet and feed him on their way south. This sets the scene for a conversation between the man and Ely that is the longest dialogue between any two characters in the book. In this conversation, we learn that Ely had a son, but what happened to that son causes the old man a tremendous amount of sorrow. In a way, Ely is a cynical picture of what the man would be without his son, as the man has found his meaning only in raising and protecting his child.
At the end of the book, the boy meets another man and his family. These people have been following the traveling duo for an unspecified amount of time, and take the boy in after his father has died. This man tells the boy that he too is carrying the fire.
In contrast, there is an effort to remove children from the world through unspeakable means in The Road. Children without parents are under constant threat of receiving harm, and the perpetrators are understood to be among the worst creatures left alive on the planet.
4. There is strength in the family
A subtle point made in The Road that is quite impactful is the strength of the family unit. In any survival situation, there is strength in numbers, but every large group of people the man and boy encounter in their travels is murderous and amoral. Again, the only "good guys" depicted in the story belong(ed) to a family.
Not only does the family sustain morality in The Road, but it also appears to sustain vitality. The boy and his father set out on their travels once the boy's mother is dead. They can survive, but living is very difficult for them. In comparison, the family the boy meets at the end is thriving. Their party consists of a man, a woman, two children, and a dog. Not only do they have the resources to sustain themselves and the only living animal mentioned in The Road, but they also seem eager to welcome the boy into their group.
This point about the strength of the family was also made by one of the podcasts. It was argued that the man's wife is one of the primary villains in the story. The man's wife, and boy's mother, kills herself before the beginning of the plot. After seeing the thriving family at the end of the story, the reader is left imagining how the circumstances might have been different for the man and the boy had they been a group of three instead of two. While I will not assert that the boy's mother serves as an antagonist, I do give this analysis some credit: a family with both parents present and involved has a better chance to experience positive outcomes than single-parent households.
Coming Up for Air - Conclusion:
It is difficult to say what The Road is about with any certainty. In its final passages, the book throws the reader a curveball, and the author is famous for his unwillingness to give many interviews about his books. Like any great work, it touches on multiple universal themes and can be interpreted in various manners depending on the lens through which it is read. I'm certain I would have different feelings about the novel had I first encountered it while single, or before becoming a parent. However, I know the story resonates with fathers, and Cormac McCarthy himself has said the inspiration for the story came from a moment he shared with his son. Therefore, I think it is safe to assume that the book is some kind of treatise on being a father. Parents and fathers have a positive influence in the bleak world of The Road and I don't think that point can be left out of any discussion about the book.
There are many ills facing society today and some even fear that the world may be heading towards a world not too different from the one depicted here. I must admit that reading The Road in light of today's current events was not wholly positive. Perhaps, in a world where fatherhood is declining and where the fathers that do exist are increasingly absent it would be good to see The Road as a positive book about the impact a man can have on his children and that can impact the world.
-Art of Manliness Podcast #760: Cormac McCarthy, The Road, and Carrying the Fire
-Alienating the Audience: "The Road" is the Ultimate Dystopia
-Carry the Fire: Lessons from Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'
-What Caused the Apocalypse in The Road?
-Writer Cormac McCarthy confides in Oprah Winfrey