Thursday, May 9, 2013

"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy - heavy thoughts

Last night I finished the audiobook of "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.

This book is a hard read.  It is well told and heavy, ton of bricks heavy.  I don't know how to talk about it without offering spoilers so read on with that warning.  I knew the end and still hated the end that was coming, and was glad the book was over when it came.

The setting is that after some apocalyptic event a man and a boy (a never named father and son) are trekking to survive somewhere.  Wake up, scour for food, hide from bad guys.  I'm not sure "bad guys" is a good description, maybe feral humans.  They won't survive another northern winter and believe there might be something to be found at the ocean. They keep moving.  That is the constant struggle in the story.  It is something you are always aware of - like light in a cave or a snorkel underwater.  Food is needed.

Imagine this, all day and  everyday, without the candybar to bite into.  okay it doesn't really relate but it is a funny commercial.

I was hit pretty hard by "The Road".  I have a soft spot for father/son stories mostly for some struggles in how my own real life has unfolded and continues into the next round.  It wasn't that I was locked into identifying with the particular characters, it was that their battle and their bond was believable.  The whole story is somehow believable - that a culture with such a callous view about life and everything this side of it would be able to turn to cannibalism wasn't a leap for me.

For me, this book was most unsettling as the 7ish y/o boy is a view of innocence and hope.  His questions and his comments were spot on - not too mature, not too immature.  There was a touch of being naive but not unaware.  The father's singular focus on keeping the boy safe is true to form also.  It did make me think about the few things that are really important and how many negligible things hold my attention.

I was truly struck by two things:
1. The father apologizes often.  It's not that he always messes up.  The man apologizes for a world where a boy sees other people being eaten for food.  He apologizes for when the boy is held at knife point and then has to have brains washed out of his hair.  The apologies are for a world that isn't right.

2.  Their role switch.  Through 3/4 or more of the book the father is the guardian of the boy.  It's his job.  At the end it is the boy worrying about the father.  I think this is most profound for not taking the easy route of it being a "coming of age" event.  The boy isn't ready.  No boy that age should be caught in that situation.

One of the other linchpins in the story is the mantra to "carry the fire".  The father tells the boy that we "carry the fire".  At first it seems that it may have been some trite statement to give the boy hope or answer a tough question.  But it really is their mission.  "We don't eat people and never will."  "We are the good guys."  They carry the hope of humanity forward.  Not animals just looking to live and eating anything.  There are many lines they cross to survive, but they stay human rather than animal.  They do indeed carry the fire so far, and then the boy carries it further.

I read the book as it was the theme for an Andrew Peterson song - "Carry the Fire" off of his album Light for the Lost Boy

So would I recommend reading (or watching or listening to) "The Road"?  Maybe.  It is well told but you better be ready for a dark ride.  To a casual reader - no.

All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between
the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul.
Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will
not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will
worship a thing only because it is ugly.  These must be chained
to the beautiful.  It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante,
to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell.
It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has
probably been made.

* * * *

Therefore I see no wrong in riding with the Nightmare to-night;
she whinnies to me from the rocking tree-tops and the roaring wind;
I will catch her and ride her through the awful air.
Woods and weeds are alike tugging at the roots in the rising tempest,
as if all wished to fly with us over the moon, like that wild,
amorous cow whose child was the Moon-Calf. We will rise to
that mad infinite where there is neither up nor down, the high
topsy-turveydom of the heavens.  I will ride on the Nightmare;
but she shall not ride on me.   
-GK Chesterton "The Nightmare"

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