In 2006, prominent American novelist Cormac McCarthy published The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel which garnered critical praise in America and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The book is notable for a stark, minimalist style interspersed with occasional purple metaphors.
Set after an unspecified global disaster, The Road follows two survivors, a man and his young son, who journey south through the smoking ashes of the United States, toward what they hope is a less dangerous country somewhere near the East Coast. During their ordeal, the man and the boy have only the rags on their backs and a cart of scavenged food. And one another. As they travel, they (and the audience) bear witness to a dead world, where nothing moves but the ashes in the breeze, nothing grows, and the sun is blacked out by a layer of poisonous ash. The only living beings except for them are the starving bands of men that stalk the road.
Depending on whom you ask, The Road is either a melancholic but stirringly beautiful story about the goodness of humanity in a hopeless world, or a hellish nightmare so dark that no sane person would read it. Or, it's just boring, repetitive, unpleasant, pretentious, and grammatically nonsensical. The writing is idiomatic to say the least, eschewing most punctuation (including quotes) and occasionally including one-sentence chapters of philosophical musing. And if you enjoy breathing, never point out that this book, despite its premise, is not to be found in the science fiction section of the bookstore: McCarthy fans will get upset at the implication that High Literature would be grouped with Genre Fiction, and Genre fans will be upset because The Road is pretty tame when compared to the Post-Apocalyptic genre, as a whole.
Like most of McCarthy's books, it was optioned for a film, released on November 25, 2009.
- After the End: One of the best and most harrowing post-apocalyptic novels ever written. One of the great things about this book is that it is one of the few such novels to actually have the stones to make it look like mankind is on its way out. Not just scraping by, but dying.
- Apocalypse How: Category 4. Biosphere extinction has already occurred and the world is in the final stages of dying.
- Arc Words: The phrase "carrying the fire" is constantly repeated by the boy, doubling as a Survival Mantra. The phrase also appeared in No Country for Old Men.
- Beard of Barbarism: Averted and played straight. Averted by the father, whose unkempt beard is mentioned a few times (typically right before he has the chance to shave it off). Played straight when the two main characters stumbled upon the ghoulish larder of a small band of cannibals at one point. As they flee, they briefly glimpse the larder's owners, and the only adjective used to describe the men is "bearded."
- Beige Prose
- Bittersweet Ending: The man has died, but the boy finds a new, slightly more prosperous family to take care of him. Of course, they're still in a dying world.
- Born Lucky: The man suspects this of his son - as much as anyone can be Born Lucky After the End, anyway. By all the available evidence, he's right.
- Cannibal Clan: Most of humanity have starved to the point where they eat other humans, and it's implied that they will eventually die from sickness or starvation, or cannibalize each other until no one is left.
- Crapsack World: Less a World Half Empty than a world almost completely drained.
- Dan Browned: It isn't widely known, but canned food is only safe to eat for five years. The man and his son should have died of botulism by now.
- Death World
- Despair Event Horizon: It's arguable whether our heroes are teetering on the edge, or jumped off a long time ago. Either way, the discovery of the cannibal larder hits them both hard.
- Driven to Suicide: The mother, and the father still carries a gun with two bullets in case the urge becomes overwhelming for him too. Justified, given the situation.
- Happy Flashback: The man actively tries to discourage these. They just make him want to end it.
- Hope Spot: The father finds a still-stocked and untouched bomb shelter, giving them a short time with comfortable beds, food, and even showers. Since he knows others will find it as well, he doesn't stay long.
- I'm a Humanitarian: The only way for most people to eat, now that the biosphere's dying out. The man and the boy are amongst the few survivors who don't indulge in this.
- Incurable Cough of Death: We see early on that the man has one, adding an extra layer of urgency to their journey.
- Inferred Holocaust: Pretty much one of the reasons why the ending is so bittersweet. Even though the boy is in good hands, the biosphere is dead. No one is going to live long once what is left of food is eaten and the remaining humans have all cannibalized each other.
- Kick the Dog: When the father and son catch up to the man who stole from them, the father engages in some Disproportionate Retribution, ordering him to strip naked and throw his belongings in their cart. This, in short, gave him a death sentence by hypothermia.
- No Name Given: No characters are named throughout the novel.
- Papa Wolf: The father.
- Pet the Dog: A couple from the scavengers who pick up the boy at the end of the book, showing that they're safe and trustworthy people to be around. They cover the father with a blanket like they'd promised, and insist the boy keep his gun when he tries to give it to them.
- Rape as Drama: Alluded to as one of the many perils on the road - not least because it's often the precursor to something worse.
- Scenery Gorn: So very much. In this world, ashes fall like snow.
- Shrug of God: The author has offered a few possible explanations for the world-ending disaster, and said that he himself has no opinion on the subject. See also The Un-Reveal.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: There's a whole cottage industry that's sprung up around debating this question. As noted in the description, there's a group that believes the book is mind-shatteringly depressing. There's another group that believes The Road is, through all the death and misery, a chronicle of the strength and beauty of the human spirit.
- Survivalist Stash: Our heroes benefit from several of these. The most spectacular example is detailed in Hope Spot, above.
- Throw the Dog a Bone: The boy loses his father, his only source of joy, comfort, peace of mind, and protection. Just as the story sets him up to travel the world as The Aloner, the scavengers who'd shot at them earlier come to pick him up... and by all the available evidence, they're trustworthy.
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future
- The Un-Reveal: What happened to the world and how it happened is only mentioned in bits and pieces, not enough to come to a conclusion. The novel is more about the eventual fate of its two characters more so than the mystery of the past.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The father forces the thief who stole their gear to strip at gunpoint, then leaves him helpless beside the road. He will almost assuredly die painfully as a result. The boy lampshades this.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: See Hope Spot, above. Also, they eventually reach the coast. There's nothing for them there.