I wished I had planned such an apt ending title for my summer reading extravaganza book reviews, however in this case it was merely fortuitous coincidence. Dang!
The last book that I read this summer was an absolutely wonderful book: The Road. I’ve never read anything else by Cormac McCarthy but The Road wasn’t my first exposure to him. I watched the movie No Country for Old Men, which is based on one of his books. I didn’t like it very much. I found it to be pointless, and when movies are pointless I get annoyed and consider them a boring waste of time. There is a little irony then, when I say that a movie preview for The Road is what drew my attention to this book.
I’m a sucker for postapocalyptic stories (just mention WaterWorld to my friends and they will break into a string of jokes at my expense). I’m also a huge Viggo Mortensen fan. Naturally, I was drawn to the ads for Mortensen’s postapocalyptic movie. But instead of going straight to the movie I decided to start with the book. I don’t really have any preference as to the book first over the movie or vice versa. I just, in this case, opted for the book first.
The book was amazing. It is a powerful story of survival and love. It is a heart-wrenching tale of personal sacrifice and the drive to live. In it the world has nearly destroyed itself. Very few details are provided to explain how the world was scorched, and I appreciated this fact. It made it a postapocalyptic story without dwelling on the failings of the modern world and the descent into self-destructive war. Instead, it accepts the burnt sky and endless falling ash as simply the way of the world. It allows the story to move in this world of destruction but to focus purely on its subjects, a desperate father and an innocent son.
The father is convinced that there is hope for mankind at the coast and so he takes his son on a journey west. They have a tattered map that they use to follow the road. They have a shopping cart which carries their only possessions. The father has a gun, loaded with only two bullets. These bullets are their last recourse.
McCarthy’s style is dark, brisk, and skeletal. He gives only the essentials and let’s the story between the lines speak volumes. The dialogue is simple, nearly empty. Like the empty world, I guess. He never names the father, nor the son. He presents only glimpses of what happened to the mother. And in the silent spaces where most authors would offer descriptions, McCarthy allows the story to sink into your psyche to feel the pain, exhaustion, and utter futility of life in this dead world.
Nearly dead world. There are other survivors, but most have turned cannibal. The father is terrified that they will get his son; so, he has trained his son to take the gun, put it in his mouth, and guarantee that the cannibals will not get him.
The story is depressing. You watch the father struggle with such motivation, a motivation that his son doesn’t usually understand. Constantly tired, hungry and cold, both are ready to give up at any moment. But the father knows he must continue, and for only one reason: his son. It is so moving it moved this unsentimental reader to tears. I wept at the end. I simultaneously cheered because it was a masterpiece of a story, but first I cried.
As the hopelessness builds up and starts to drag the story down, McCarthy gives moments of hope and refreshment. It is in these moments when the father is able to teach his son about “the fire inside” and about how they are the good guys. The son is sweet, innocent, and good. He is good even when his father must be bad to keep them alive. And so he doesn’t understand that at times we face morally gray areas where an action must be made, and sometimes good intentions are good enough.
The father is no hero in this story, but he is made heroic by the selfless actions of love and protection. His simple mortality shows through in every word he says. He is scared. Uncertain. Desperate. And nearly out of hope. But this father is, without a doubt, a brave hero because of the extreme efforts he goes to. He is as real as any father who understands that his child’s life is more precious than his own. And his actions don’t just speak, but scream and tremble with love.
When I finished this book I had only been a father for maybe 4 months. It didn’t matter to me that my son, who had finally fallen asleep, had finally fallen asleep. All I wanted to do was rush in, pick him up, hug him, love him, and protect him. I wanted to whisper that nothing bad would ever happen to him. (For the record, my wife, to whom it did matter that her son had finally fallen asleep, didn’t think much of my emotional reaction and told me to let sleeping babes lie. “Rationality”, she insisted.)
The movie is just as powerful as the book. It too made me weep. The movie stayed very true to the book. It did add a little to the story, but for cinematic purposes. The book would have been far too sparse as a movie so dialogue and just a little more back story was added. Visually, it had a great look, and the acting was the stuff you hope for from great actors but rarely get. Mortensen gave this role his all.
I give this book a 4.5 out of 5 stars. The half star was deducted because the slow parts were slow the first time through. Without knowing where the book was going it seemed tedious in the moment. In retrospect, they were perfect.