The road, by Cormac McCarthy (2006).
The road is a minimalistic novel that follows the misadventures of an unnamed father and his son in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is built as a series of vignettes that focus on the man’s scavenge for canned goods, trying to normalize his son’s childhood and hiding from cannibalistic slavers and death cults.
The damn thing is depressing as hell. Even being used to post-apocalyptic stories, this one is especially pessimistic. The only people that the father and son come across are bandits, cannibals or wretches they can’t share any of their goods with because they risk starving themselves. At the same time, this book was hugely influential this past decade so I felt I was a bit late to the show. This has been done to death and sometimes in a more elaborate and innovative ways, from The walking dead to The last of us. So the book feels a bit dated, though it has great historical value.
In literary terms, the book is quite well written, with beige prose and clever dialogue. But as someone who is fighting the notion that genre literature is inherently worse than high-end literature (whatever that means), there is something not quite right about the plot. You can tell this wasn’t written by a genre author because it lacks certain attention to detail in worldbuilding that a speculative fiction author wouldn’t have overlooked. Let me elaborate.
The man and the boy have been scavengers for as long as the kid has been alive, which might be anywhere between five and ten years. In the whole book they don’t hunt anything, gather but a few mushrooms and basically live off canned foods. I did some research and even though shelf life is officially two or three years, four or five-decade-old canned goods will still be edible, even though texture and taste will have deteriorated. We’re on the same page for now.
Cannibals and death cults are basically the only thing the man and boy find. Such would definitely exist in such a scenario. But where are the good people? Are we to believe the only two decent people in the world are these two? That the rest have been enslaved or are too scared to do anything constructive? If I recall correctly, there are two mentions of communes. Why doesn’t the father make an effort to try to get into one? He needs all the help he can get and he knows his way around, it would be a match made in heaven. I have a pet theory: the guy craves moral control over his son. He keeps telling the boy that they’re the good guys and they help people and such but being in contact with other people would show the kid how much of a coward his father is. Like, the little guy starts suspecting without ever speaking to anyone else.
On the other hand, it’s implied that nothing at all is alive except for humans and I find that really hard to swallow. Humans are not particularly resilient. If humans have managed not to die, there must be grass, rodents, cockroaches, something. I mean, once they live off old apples for a few days. Either apple trees are still alive and kicking or they managed to eat five-year-old apples that hadn’t rotten. A commune not only could be farming, but it would be the sanest thing to do. If no animals or plants are left whatsoever, there’s no fucking way these guys have survived for almost a decade, even on canned potatoes. It’s not even implied what happened is nuclear fallout, and even massive albedo would not have killed everything except for humans (how convenient) Also, I find it implausible that they always manage to find old cans within a few miles of where they are. It all makes the theory that all of them are in purgatory and the kid is actually an angel almost believable.
So, it is one of two things: either the author didn’t think it through, or all I’ve said is actually implied in the book. There are farms and decent people and viable communes and the guy is just a human turd who has made his son’s childhood living hell. Who knows.
That being said, the dynamic between father and son is quite well-achieved. The kid changes as time goes by and starts challenging his father in many ways; mostly he’s pissed that they never cooperate or help anyone but still call themselves the good guys. The father might seem a decent guy at the beginning, but his pathological mistrust is actually making things worse for both of them (except that time when they decide it’s a good idea to fire a flare gun. Like, wow. You spend a whole day covering your tracks because someone might have seen you briefly among the trees but why not shoot a flare gun, whose only purpose is to tell people where you are. Amazing).
The fact that the kid is found by a decent family right after the father’s death might look whimsical but it’s actually cleverly justified. When they leave the underground shelter, the kid insists that he has seen a child and a dog. The father waves it off as a delusion because who would keep a dog and a kid instead of eating them. Everyone’s a bastard except for me and my son, right? So this family starts following them because the father is too narrow-minded to believe his son and start covering their tracks. The family knows they’re peaceful because they leave a ton of food and supplies behind in the shelter, so they start following. Also, probably the kid saw the other kid and the parents believed it.