The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. The Road is a novel that will stun your soul. I found this stark metaphor about human nature so beautifully written I would use it as a textbook on writing. Although the term science fiction is seldom used when reviewing this literary work, its theme puts it squarely into that realm of storytelling and the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, like the magnificent Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Predicting the end of civilization and the death of mankind goes back to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. The list of such tales is rather long, and the approaches to the idea vary widely. Some have hope, some are about rediscovery of ancient knowledge, and some like The Road, are a kind of last judgment of mankind.

For those who only watch their science fiction, think The Road Warrior or The Postman or Waterworld, usually featuring a few good people fighting against the lawless hordes of barbaric humans. However, these stories would be about overpopulation compared to The Road, which is set in a world so bleak the reader is not even sure if plants and bugs still live. Most post-apocalyptic novels are warnings to the present, telling us to get our shit together or we’ll end up like the people in this book. When I was young and read these novels they were exciting and adventurous and I’d fantasize how well I could survive. I’m much different at fifty-six and Cormac McCarthy’s story was like standing in front of a well lit mirror. I saw I don’t have what it takes. I would be one of the millions that died off quickly. And that’s depressing.

The Road is about Mankind and Mother Nature failing to the max. Nothing lives but a few humans in a cold gray landscape. We do not know why things have failed, but by reading the book the reader will realize just how vital civilization is to our psychic well being. For me at least, reading this book made me understand that the value of being human is directly proportional to the success of society. Without our social structure life is no more meaningful than dirt.

With the dark clouds of global warming gathering over our heads I can’t help but read The Road as prophetic. If civilization collapses and economics failed and the western world fell into chaos like Afghanistan or the Sudan, we’d be reduce to the strong preying on the weak, but as The Road shows even this only goes as far as resources allow. If the machinery of society came to an abrupt halt, we’d have seven billion people scavenging for food eating anything they could digest. Humans would be worse than locus.

In The Road what nature or man didn’t destroy the remaining people ate or burned for warmth. The unnamed father and son, who are the main characters of the story, trudge along an unnamed road, constantly on the lookout for any dwelling that might still have something eatable within. The only sources of food appear to be the leftovers of civilization or the flesh of humans. In this story the man and boy avoid all other people thinking of themselves as the last good guys running from all the bad guys.

Bleak huh? While reading The Road you admire the beauty of the writing but are horrified by the vision it creates. This book has the power to turn a liberal into a conservative. This isn’t a book you read for fun or diversion. It’s a parable about human nature that will open up your philosophical veins. We’d like to think that the future is always bright because who remembers the dark ages. I think some people will read this book and want to arm themselves with enough firepower to kill a whole city. But no matter how much food and ammunition you store up you won’t be able to protect yourself and family. Anyone with anything becomes a beacon to the desperate. McCormac aptly illustrates that living like a cockroach is the superior survival strategy, if that’s what you want. You may realize it is this world or nothing.

People like to believe in heaven, and maybe millions would be anxious to leave this planet for the next world if such a collapse occurs, but the real lesson of this story is civilization, law and order, economic stability, cooperation and trust is what we really want out of reality.

I read The Road by listening to the Recorded Books edition read by Tom Stechschulte. This dramatic reading magnified all the best qualities of the novel and made McCarthy’s writing vivid. A MP3 sample can be found here. This sample is not typical of the book because it uses one of the few flowery writing segments referring to a dream. It does give a feel for the setting and the end of the sample shows the more common POV of the father. I wished the sample had included the dialog between the father and son because Mr. Stechschulte’s reading is dead on in characterization.I got my copy at, but it’s also available at Amazon and iTunes.

  • Be sure and read Jason Sanford’s essay Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment’s Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction, which goes much deeper than I do in exploring the debt the literary world owes to science fiction and other genres. I used to be in a MFA program and experienced the strong bias the literary folk have against genre writers.  Sanford documents this in great detail. He also talks about Michael Chabon’s review of The Road and how Chabon tries to bridge the gap between the literary and genre world. Sanford also summarizes many of the literary reviews of The Road and how those reviewers failed to credit earlier post-apocalyptic novels.  – Excellent read.


10 thoughts on “The Road by Cormac McCarthy”

  1. I listened to it, and the reader was excellent. He used different voices for the father and son, and he acted out both so all the emotion came through. You could hear the characterization and it jived perfectly with the writing cues.


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