The structural ingenuity of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, draws its power from the classical elements of earth, wind, air and fire. A father and son travelling through bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape in search of warmth, of something better, are repeatedly beset by nature at its cruelest and most unforgiving. They huddle under a plastic tarp to hide from the rain and snow, build fires to ward off the cold, cover their faces with sheets to strain the ash from the air and long for an earth rendered whole again.
The Road is fiercely bleak and relentlessly unforgiving. There's not an ounce of sentimentality. The grief enshrouding it is nearly unbearable. But what ultimately sustains the reader, I think, what keeps us going and makes it worth our while, is the relationship between the father and son that lies at the center of the book. It's in this relationship that McCarthy weaves a powerful accumulation of riffs, motifs and themes that he controls with breathtaking precision. At the root of this father-son relationship is the universal love of a parent for his child and of a child's love for his parent. It's one of the oldest stories we know, and McCarthy's prose and themes have been justly called biblical in both their severity and tenderness. And there's no doubt of the severity found in The Road. Humanity, what's left of it, has seemingly resorted to anarchy and cannibalism, the sky is impenetrably gray, the landscape fire scorched and hope, whenever it threatens to flicker, is promptly extinguished. McCarthy's genius, however, is to subject this elemental severity to the love between the father and son and our own hope, as readers, that such love would continue to exist undiminished in such a bleak place. There's a fierce undercurrent of tenderness in The Road, a light in all its darkness that the darkness can't quite comprehend. A heartrending tenderness that, despite itself, rises up out of the darkness. It's not triumphant, this love, it's not a balm or eventually victorious in banishing the novel's unrelenting darkness. It just is because it knows no other way.
One telling exchange towards the novels end, as the father and son stumble through the darkness in search of their shelter, offers a telling glimpse of this unbending compassion:
I can't see.
I know. We'll just have to take it one step at a time.
Don't let go.
No matter what.
No matter what.
At the risk of hyperbole, The Road is a masterpiece, a work of fiction both devastating in its effect, powerful in its momentum and deeply satisfying in its conclusion. That, my friends, is why we read!