"Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy "

Jack Mallard

SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring 2009)






          “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: if he is not the word of God God never spoke” (5).

          In The Road (New York: Vintage International, 2006), Cormac McCarthy applies apocalyptic, dystopic tropes to strip away the superfluous in order to sympathetically examine and observe the complicated love and nature of a father-son relationship. In the near future a Man and his Son traverse the cold, unforgiving terrain of a dying world. Swirling ash stifles the sunlight, slowly smothering her warmth and life. Rivers and lakes are grey and empty of fish. Cities and towns stand menacingly hollow. An unnamed catastrophe has leveled our world, and life, as we know it, is extinct. Marauding gangs of cannibals and desperate cabals of blood cults threaten and “the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” (3). Herein travel an unnamed Man and his Son in a desperate attempt to reach the ostensibly warmer, more hospitable southeastern coast of the United States.

          McCarthy is no stranger to critical and academic attention. The National Book Award was given for his All the Pretty Horses (1992) while Blood Meridian, a gruesome Western published in 1985, was voted by critics, authors, and publishers as one of the five most important American novels in the last 25 years. The 2007 Coen Brothers’ film adaptation of No Country for Old Men took home the Best Picture Academy Award, among others, for its unflinching look at our contemporary, and uniquely violent, American moment. But The Road, McCarthy’s most recent novel, is a foreboding work that brought popular, commercial approval simultaneous to the renewed critical attention. The accolades adorning The Road have been generous and plentiful, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and being a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Inspiration for the novel came one sleepless night in San Antonio as McCarthy considered the future awaiting his own son, John Francis McCarthy, then only a 6-year-old boy. The grim and austere description in the novel ascetic in its word count, liberal in its pathos; it is, simply, nightmare. The theologian Thomas A. Carlson described the plight of the Man and the Boy, “Radically deprived of the things and persons in relation with which and with whom one normally exists, [the Man and Boy] who travel The Road find themselves and their existence thrown into absolute question.” [1] It’s a scenario no father wishes to face in his attempt to raise his son.

          Perhaps the greatest burden placed on this father is solitude. The popularly-held adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is denied him. Michel Foucault, throughout his career, examined and hypothesized on the way that power, and her derived institutions, construct and form individuals. History, according to Foucault and inspired by Nietzsche, occurs non-linearly; or, insists on the accidental, non-transcendent development of society and people. The Road puts Foucault’s theory to test in a way that the theorist never could. McCarthy fashions a world devoid of institutions and power play beyond the small, independent, and transitory scale. Additionally, the intercourse working between ideas and people has largely been eliminated; libraries razed and history, literally, has expired: “Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead” (196). The Boy is unique among those inhabiting this world as he was born after the devastation that leveled society; despite the absence of schools, libraries, governments, and churches, he was not taught compassion—he has it. Believing to see another little boy as they cross through a town, the Boy begins to beg his father to go back. “What if that little boy doesnt have anybody to take care of him? he said. What if he doesnt have a papa? . . . I’m afraid for that little boy . . . We should go get him, Papa . . . I’d give that little boy half of my food. What about the little boy? he sobbed. What about the little boy?” (86-7). The Boy resists his father’s insistence that the other boy has his own people, that he has his own food, his own protection. He sees a boy, alone, and wants that boy to share the safety and security he has come to experience. Experience has shown him that people pillage, rape, enslave and kill to ensure their own survival, but this is not his way. This Boy possesses ideas and attributes that have sprung from somewhere else beyond even his father and seem to promise at least his success, if not his survival. That divine germ works in the Boy, and with his father, against the darkness and depravation operating everywhere around him. Because of this spark, the Man is frustrated, at times, as he and his son fail to understand the other’s position and responsibility.

           Meanwhile, scripture, too, is replete with examples of the complex nature of the father-son dynamic. The Man avoids discussion of his own terminal illness and does not share his suspicion that their journey may come to naught. Like McCarthy’s Man, Abraham does not reveal the breadth of their circumstances to his son, Isaac: “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8). Distinct sacrifices will be required of both father and son but neither Abraham nor the Man has the heart to place that burden of knowledge on their sons prematurely. On another occasion, The Boy quietly rebukes his father after he fails to take his share of hot chocolate, “If you break little promises you’ll break big ones. That’s what you said” (emphasis added; 29). Nephi, in the Book of Mormon, similarly reminds Lehi, his father, of the Lord’s covenant to bring them to the Promised Land. Lehi murmurs and complains because he is rightly concerned with the pain that those for whom he is responsible are suffering (1 Nephi 16:18-27). The father on The Road, who only wished to give his son a little more chocolate, also lost sight of an essential part of the picture—his son loves him, too, and wishes to share with him, as well. When a thief steals the cart carrying their food and tools, the Boy must plead for his father not to kill him:

“Just help him, Papa. Just help him.
“The man looked back up the road.
“He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.
“He’s going to die anyway.
“He’s so scared, Papa.
“The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.
“The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing.
“You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
“The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? he said.
“He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one” (259).

           No fault can be found with the desired actions of the Man; the safety of a child is paramount and eclipses all other concerns. To shoot the thief would not simply be a punishment but a justifiable safeguard to his son’s wellbeing. The crucified Savior also pled to His Father for the acquittal of thieves (Luke 23:39-43). There are no circumstances ascribed to the thieves atop Golgotha or the one passing along The Road beyond that of their guilt. Both Christ and the Boy looked to their respective Fathers and pled for mercy—a higher law—to be employed in the consideration of the sentences at hand.

           Scriptural precedent demonstrates that fatherhood is no easy burden to bear and the responsibility can be overwhelming, even for prophets. All fathers, much like prophets, struggle with the burden/privilege of foreseeing the pain associated with growth. At what point ought a father to allow a mistake to be made to further the greater objective of self-dependence and self-determination? Sons occupy precarious positions as well, growing to maturity as individuals while learning to shoulder the hopes and heritages of past generations. As Michael Chabon, novelist, essayist, and fan, aptly described, The Road is a horror story: “it is a testament to the abyss of a parent's greatest fears. The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with.” [2] And what of the fear of a child at the thought, or reality, of losing a loving, trusted and trusting companion? The Road conjures grotesques, thrills, and villains, but the key to its success and lingering impact lies not in its tears and viscera. Like any good piece of horror, The Road works because it awakens the latent, night-time fears that plague us. Ultimately, fatherhood is not for the faint of heart and, suitably, neither is The Road.



[1] Carlson, Thomas A. “With the World at Heart: Reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with Augustine and Heidegger.” Religion and Literature 39.3 (Autumn 2007): 47-71, p. 54. [Back to manuscript]

[2] Chabon, Michael. “After the Apocalypse.” The New York Review of Books 54.1 (15 February 2007). [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Mallard, Jack (2009) "Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy," SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMallardRoad.html, accessed [give access date].

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