Cormac McCarthy’s The Road demonstrates again the author’s ability to take what appear to be the exploitation genres of American cinema and repurpose them to plumb the depths of human experience. In Blood Meridian, the grisly Western transformed into a study of the inescapable nature of evil. No Country for Old Men took the small-time-cop-makes-good genre and turned it inside out to place the futility of human aspirations in bold relief. With The Road, a reader could be forgiven for expecting Mad Max to appear over the horizon, yet this post-apocalyptic story features fewer desert car chases and acts of testosterone-fueled bravado (zero and zero by my count), replacing them with a lengthy, but not overlong, examination of human hope in the face of hopelessness.
The novel follows two characters, a father and a son, traveling south in a world where all animal and plant life, aside from a remnant of humanity, has been destroyed, apparently by a nuclear war. Like many of the others who have survived, this pair travels the roads of a depopulated America in hopes of finding a bit of canned food food or a few crumbs of dried seed there. Along the way, they encounter those who would steal their possessions as well as those who have turned to cannibalism and would consume their flesh. In the end, the father dies after being shot by an arrow. Only then does the son encounter the man who has apparently been following and keeping tabs on them. In the end, the boy goes off to live with the man and his family, who he assumes to be “one of the good guys” and “carrying the fire.”
A great deal can be said about the theme of hope in this novel. What keeps people moving forward in a world where the food will undeniably run out, where the future promises nothing but more privation and death? What keeps the father from using the last two bullets in his revolver to end their two lives yet at the same time has him obsessing on those bullets and his son’s knowledge of using one them if things turn ugly?
But rather than travel that obvious path regarding this novel, I’d like to spend a moment considering the close of the book. As mentioned above, the man whom the boy meets after his father dies is not a chance encounter. “Where’s the man you were with?” the stranger asks, yet the boy had been in the woods with his father’s corpse for three days. Presumably the stranger had either been spying on their camp or had seen them days and weeks earlier along the road. A page later we learn, “There was some discussion about whether to even come after you at all.”
Throughout The Road, the father works very hard to protect his son, but also throughout, he demonstrates his own flaws and inability to trust. Several times, the boy asks his father something to the effect of “are we still the good guys?” Of course, his father answers in the affirmative, but as we see the father behave with a measure of cruelty, we have to wonder. Would he, in an extremity, become a cannibal? That question remains unanswered.
Like Moses in the Torah, the father cannot enter the Promised Land. His son, unmarked by his father’s failures can go on. His encounter with the stranger suggests Joshua’s encounter with the Commander of the Lord’s Army in Joshua 5:13-15, mysterious and frightening, suggesting hope and favor for the future, but promising nothing.
Does the close of this story promise hope? Has the boy entered into a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey? That question remains very much open. In the film version of the The Road, the father and son see a bird just before the wound that will take the man’s life. That bird, with its suggestion of some remnant of the natural world fighting through the radiation, makes no appearance in the book. In a world stripped of God and His creation, hope becomes a very scarce commodity.