I read The Road for the first time three years ago, while confined to a chair recovering from major surgery. I’ve read it twice more since, and I intend to read it a fourth and a sixth and a twelfth time. After all, Stephen King has said that good books don’t give up all their secrets at once. And The Road is a good book. One of the best.
But this isn’t a review, at least not in any proper sense. Been there, done that. It’s merely an excuse to recommend (for the zillionth time) a novel I dearly love. All you people who haven’t been paying attention to the hints I’ve dropped elsewhere elsewhen, listen up here and now.
Of course, I also needed a dumping ground for the impressions that have been welling up inside my head with each additional read through. If you’ll pardon a funky metaphor, The Road is like an onion: there’s always one more layer.
So without further mucking about, here are three very simple and very pointed reasons you should read this book:
First, the characters. McCarthy’s story takes place in a post-apocolyptic wasteland, amid falling ash and desolated cities and roving bands of cannibals. It’s not a ‘boring’ read by any stretch of the imagination. But more compelling than the world itself are the characters who roam it. As McCarthy studies them, we look over his shoulder to see hatred and anger and despair locked in a death-struggle with hope and courage and sacrifice. Men who prey on their fellow man, who hoard heartbeats with greedy, blood-soaked fingers; contrasted with one man who holds his life with an open hand, whose chief aim is to prepare his son for the day he will no longer be around, to train him to “carry the fire,” to teach him what it means to be the good guy in a world of bad guys.
Second, the questions. What does it mean to be “civilized” when civilization has ceased to exist? What does it mean to be human while up to your neck in inhumanity? Is man more than a collection of molecules wrapped in a fleshy exterior? Is life without hope worth living, or even possible? And that’s but a fingernail’s scratch on the surface, believe me. If you read this book and put it down unshaken, unbothered, and unstirred, you did not read this book. Try again.
Third, the writing. Reading Cormac McCarthy is like nothing else in the world of literature. Oh sure, people throw around comparisons to Faulkner and Hemingway like tokens at an arcade, but the fact remains that McCarthy is his own man entirely. His style and his voice are exceptional and unique, and I could spend a dozen paragraphs trying to describe them to you without getting any closer than I am now. You have to experience them for yourself. You don’t know what you’re missing otherwise.
As a bonus: if you happen to be an Andrew Peterson fan, you should know that The Road served as the inspiration for ‘Carry the Fire’: