The Genius of The Road
I write and talk a lot about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It's a post-apocalyptic novel that delivers profound philosophical quandaries with very simple prose. McCarthy employs an unusual writing style. Its most obvious characteristic is that there are no quotation marks. When I first encountered his writing with The Road, I didn't realize this was a characteristic of all his books. It was exceptionally powerful in The Road because of the story's stark setting. The fact that most of the scenes only include two characters minimized the potential confusion resulting from this technique. I later read Blood Meridian and found that this practice seriously detracted from my enjoyment of the story. Blood Meridian often had six or more characters in any particular scene and it was often difficult to tell who was saying what.
The premise of The Road is that a man and his son (identified only as "Man" and "Boy") are traveling towards the coast following some unknown calamity that has created a dark, dreary sky that blocks almost all sunlight. Food supplies have plummeted and cannibals roam the land in search of victims. Man has determined that the coast offers the best chance of finding food. He and Boy travel on a road in a nightmarish setting pushing a grocery cart containing everything they possess.
Adding to the urgency of the situation is the fact that Man has a terminal illness of some sort. Although it is never specified it is most likely lung cancer. Boy, who is about eight years-old, doesn't know about his dad's illness. It is this illness that prevents Man from simply finding a safe haven for the two of them (an option that is presented but rejected by Man). He desperately wants to find someone he can trust to raise and care for Boy.
Man is clearly struggling with his moral instruction of Boy. It is apparent that prior to the disaster he was invested in making sure Boy was a principled human being. But this apocalypse has changed the rules of the game. Virtues like kindness, charity, and self-sacrifice will likely lead to one's death in this world. Now that societal norms have been ripped away, this setting requires selfishness and brutality to survive. As Man attempts to "reprogram" Boy for the realities of this new world, Boy pushes back. For example, there is a scene where the two of them see a mother and a young daughter fleeing in terror from a group of cannibals. Boy points out that what the cannibals are doing is wrong and that he and Man should do something to help the imperiled innocents. Man does nothing and they both watch as the woman and her child are caught and killed by the cannibals. Later, the two meet a blind man in their travels who is hungry and near death. Boy insists that they help him by giving him some of their food. Man resists, pointing out that the blind man is going to die soon regardless and that any food they give him is less food they have for themselves. It is a harsh lesson in survival ethics where the general principles of humanity from the "old world" have been supplanted by the strictly practical principles of survival in the new one. It is a stark demonstration of how these two have been dragged into the mire of situational ethics.
Ultimately they reach an accord of sorts. The Boy continues to reference the fact that the two of them "carry the fire". They know what is right and what is wrong. It is simply their current circumstances that have caused them to abandon those principles. It is intended to be temporary. They have to do what they have to do to survive so that when the world returns to normal they can resume their roles as "the good guys". McCarthy doesn't offer any opinions about whether or not such a return from the Abyss is possible, leaving it as an issue for the reader to determine.
The ending (NO SPOILERS!) is tremendously moving. I've read this book at least five times and have never finished it without tears on my cheeks. An ember of hope remains in the midst of this dark and cruel world. The entire book is an allegory for the father-son relationship, except on steroids. Every good father seeks to teach his son how to balance idealism with practicality, how to help others without becoming a sucker, how to know when to temporarily place principles aside and throw hands. Watching Man struggle with these issue in this sort of setting is brutally poignant for any man who has tried to rise a son. The Road is simply a masterpiece that presents deep philosophical issues that are intricately connected to an interesting and compelling story.