An Unlikely Romance: Thoughts on The Road, by Cormac McCarthy


…conducive to or characterized by the expression of love…

(OED Online)

Last night I read The Road – straight through in one sitting. It had been sitting around like an unexploded landmine in the house ever since my son brought it back home for the summer. It’s the kind of book you really do want to share with someone close to you as soon as you’ve read it. Or maybe slightly later, when you’ve had the time to think about it.

One reason it took me a while to get around to it was that over the summer my partner – its intended recipient – lost his dad. A book that basically explores the father-son relationship against a wasteland of devastation is maybe not the ideal diversion at such times. I’m naturally somewhat cowardly so I feared it for a while. But in the end, you just have to get on and do such things if you’re ever going to do them, so after dinner last night I picked it up and dove in. And for the next few hours my entire world shrank to the two unnamed main characters – father and son – and their daily struggle to survive.

The physical challenges were gripping. It’s surprising how invested you can become in the minute by minute challenges of adapting a scavenged gas stove or improvising footwear in atrocious weather. It’s difficult to think of a more individualistic genre than the American road story, yet this particular father and son become Everyman figures, representative of the entire human race. And then you think again and realise they’re not universal at all. We just like to think they are, but in the extreme dystopia of the book’s world, they’re almost unique. They have not become reduced to beasts. They retain a sense of morality, decency, humanity – although it comes under immense pressure at times.

There’s a reason for that – the man has to stay strong for his son. All this young boy has to go on to teach him how he ought to live is the example of his father. Like all children, at times the boy challenges him. Sometimes he’s less selfish – through innocence, through the very nobility that his father has taught him. You could argue, and many would, that the ending is inevitable. There’s really only one place this story can go, and it’s grim. You’re waiting for it almost from the first word, dreading it, yet when it comes the emotions you are left with are wonder and hope. Well, in my case at least.

At its core, The Road is a deeply romantic book. I don’t mean that in the Barbara Cartland sense at all. Roman is the French word for story, and there are times when the stories we tell have to be braver, better and stronger than the reality. I believe with all my heart and soul that this is why telling stories is such an elemental human activity. They have a function. They teach us how to live.

One of the themes of The Road is the age-old parental dilemma of how much parents should lie to their children. Lying is theoretically wrong, but they can only bear a portion of the truth. Sometimes what is technically a white lie – the Man’s repeated assurance that they aren’t going to die, for example – is an investment in the future, the only source of hope. I never read a book in which the apparently banal word “Okay” is said so many times. It becomes a mantra, a continuing affirmation of trust when, literally, there is nothing else left. Most of the conversations between the two of them end with them repeating it to each other. It’s nothing less than a compact to carry on, to refuse to let that spark of hope and humanity die in a broken world.

(NOTE – if you haven’t read the book, there are SPOILERS below)




If you think about it calmly and logically, the ending is pretty unconvincing. The Man dies but his son in is rescued by the first decent person outside the two of them we’ve met in the whole book. How likely is that? How is the boy’s new adopted family going to live any better than his father managed to in such a world? Many modern writers would have gone with the starker conclusion – the Man dies, and the boy dies too. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M Forster defines the difference between a story and a plot. “The king died and then the queen died,” is a story. “The king died and the queen died of grief,” is the latter. A plot is a causal chain of circumstances, imposing order on random chaos, and something deep within humanity responds to that. It is arguably the basis of all religious practice.

In a book that is all about hope – and The Road, strangely and wonderfully, is exactly that, it’s completely in character to have a hopeful ending. It is a story that has got the boy thus far, and it’s a story he needs to go on believing in, or he’d lie down next to his father’s body and die right there. If we don’t have love, and trust, and values, we lose everything. That’s what we need to keep in our flimsy carts as we fight our way through the world.

Over on a blog I follow, The History Girls, there’s been a discussion of the kind of stories that young people need to read, and whether in a kind of arms race to the ultimate dystopia Young Adult publishers have crossed a line. I wouldn’t want to advocate censorship. But if ever a book was about the redeeming power of hopeful stories, this is it. In the event of a catastrophe so severe that it reset civilization to zero, which is basically what we have here, how much of our chattering, blogging selves would remain? The Road describes a world where, assuming humanity survives at all, literacy could be lost within a generation. To teach a child the alphabet in such circumstances could be dismissed as a cruel delusion, a denial of the harsh realities that humanity is doomed and reduced to the level of beasts. But it is an investment in the future, and we have to have some concept of the future – and telling our story is, at the most fundamental level, the most ancient and powerful manifestation of that.

So, with a huge list of chores, I sit on the sofa in my comfortable house and type my feelings about this book, because it is part of my story and because, in his student house a couple of hundred miles away, my son will eventually read them. And it might well be the most important thing I do all day.


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