by Cormac McCarthy
Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.
Any review of this book should start with a long, slow whistle. One whose tone crawls down to the low frequencies, realizes it’s trapped there, and unable to escape it lies down to die.
A man and a young boy travel south on the road in a world shattered by events so cataclysmic nearly all plant and animal life is gone. Freezing to death and heading for the coast, warmth and possibly food, the two deal with the elements, marauding bandits and their own fear. The last of the good guys, they carry the fire while the planet’s final survivors tear each other the rest of the way apart.
It’s an anti-adventure story in that adventures usually come as journeys into the unknown, complete with fear and thrills, and there are no thrills here. The story is about as bleak as it gets, with horrific battles to cling to horrific lives dominating every inch of it. Feel good story-of-the-year this is not.
The Pulitzer winner becomes an intense study of that thing inside us, not the thing that makes us human, but the one that makes it worthwhile for there to be humans in the first place. The father and son, unnamed in the story, aren’t the only survivors on the planet, but they represent the last vestiges of humanity. The very few others the two meet on the road are already animals, either snarling and fighting to live a few more days or mewling in the dirt, beaten and soberly watching death approach.
Interestingly, and poignantly, while the two travelers struggle to remain what they think of as ‘good’, the father’s infrequent references to his pistol as a suicide tool, a last resort to avoid capture by the animals, does a couple of things. It underscores the horror the two are dealing with, a world that’s in its last stages of shucking off its old human masters, but it also portrays an impossible hope. Every moment he doesn’t use the gun he is, in effect, hoping for a better future for his boy, despite all evidence it’s not to be. That hope is deeply human, a beautiful and a tragic thing amidst such devastation.
The world doesn’t end with a bang. Nor a whimper. It ends with Death’s snicker, as he carefully picks the last delectable bits from our bones and props his boots on our hearth, here to stay. If we had the will, we’d fight him off just one last time.
It’s been a nice run. See you on the road—the day after tomorrow.
Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned.