At the outset it must be said that 'The Road' by Cormac Mccarthy is a queasy read, not one which can be stomached easily. That said, it offers a lot for the persistent reader. Though post-apocalyptic novels are not uncommon, as are novels that speak of humans enduring against all odds ('Moments of Reprieve' comes to mind immediately, from what I have read), 'The Road' differs in several ways from the others. It can also be read as journey of 2 persons trying to hold on to the human spirit such as it exists, as a story between a father and son and also a journey into the descent of man into the depths, when faced with unforeseen difficulties.
It can be read at the basic level, about the journey of a father and son through post-apocalyptic America where 99% of the landscape has been ruined, to the 'South' where presumably things would be a bit better (though this is not clearly said so). The journey involves traversing through snow falls, through the ash dust that is falling always , scavenging for food and trying to escape from cannibal groups. They also have to keep an eye out for fires that seem to have broken out in many places. The reason for this catastrophe is not mentioned throughout the novel. To me this is not an issue, since the novel is about 2 persons trying to survive in a hostile world which has gone back to his pre-historic/primitive roots (primitive maybe a condescending term since the catastrophe that has happened in the presumably civilized age of today)
A thing in this novel is, the near absence of characters other than the father and his son. In fact, it is by the fiftieth page or so when we come across another person and that too only for a single page. There have been novels where a single character is the object of it, where most of the action is communicated through a monologue (Beckett?). Here McCarthy describes the travel of the two and their foraging for food in short paragraphs which tell about their journey for a particular day, the next paragraph for another day. In such a scenario and with only bleak landscapes, the journey of the two persons to describe, the author does not have much raw material on which to work on. The description of the desolation all around the travelers, though it may seem to be bit repetitive are so evocative that each description is slightly different from the previous one. One gets the feeling of being transported to the landscape himself. Descriptions like 'The Sun was going around in the clouds like a old woman with a lantern searching for her son' , shine through.
The journey continues to the coastal area where things are not much different (it is implied that this is not much of a surprise, but the journey was made on the pretext that the south could be much better) and ends (does it though?) or culminates in what seems to be a resolution that is not overtly melodramatic or cliche ridden.
The man is a complicated person, loving and protective father to his son,trying to hold on to at least some of the values of the old word, but also a bit paranoid. Why does he avoid each and everyone. There must have been something that happened in the aftermath of the disaster that has made him suspicious of everyone, but it comes across as a bit of paranoia only. He tries his best to hold on to some of the sense of rights/wrongs and decency that had been part of the old world, but which are meaningless in the face of such devastation and complete collapse of everything civil. But it is only a fine thin line between treading either of the paths. Consider what happens when the father encounters a person who steals their belongings. In a fit of anger, he strips the person nude and leaves him as it is and proceeds after taking what belongs to them and also the other person's clothes. Here he probably does something that he probably abhors to do, since after some time he comes back to give the other person his clothes, but he is missing. But the line has been crossed, the man has probably become at least for a short while the very persons whom he is trying to avoid. How much a man can handle without giving up on his notions is a moot point and we cannot be judgmental about it. Also the point when the man discards the photo of his wife and purse and proceeds is very poignant, he has reached a point where either he can do without these memories or the memories do not mean anything to him now. Like the last straw on the camels back, though what the last straw could be, varies from person to person.
The boy is innocent/ignorant, depending on the view of the reader. He wants to help the few persons they see, does not understand why his father does not want to (it is not actually that the father does not want not to help, but he knows that it is futile and in the environment they live, it is practically everyman for himself), neither does he understand why his father tries to avoid contact with everyone.
McCarthy brings out the relationship between the two tenderly and with great affection. The repeated usage of the phrase 'its okay' is very effective in it's very simplicity. How many times have we consoled someone with the same phrase and have been consoled too, though both the consoler and consoled knows that it is not going to be okay, but still accepts it to put off facing the moment of truth. And the dialogues near the end, where it shown implicitly that the kid has slowly started to look after his father (instead of the other way round), so gut wrenching coming to the end just after it.
Some questions assailed me while reading the novel and after I read it too. Does living in such harrowing circumstances, resorting to cannibalism and stuff, mean more than giving it all up and dying. Can the people who live in such circumstances be termed as brave or confronting the odds and the people who commit suicide or just give up the will to live (like the man's wife) be termed as cowards. Can we, who can look at it pretty objectively make any decision on this, isn't it presumptuous of us to think so. Can we say that since the mother went off leaving her child, she is a bad person and since the man stayed to look after his son, that he is the better person. It may sound cruel, but an argument could also conversely be made that the woman was brave in going off, while the man was cowardly and used his kid as an excuse to live, while subjecting the kid too lots of torment in the devastated world. Maybe the kid was better off dying since it is more probable the man would die beforehand the kid would be left alone, than the kid dying first.
I think the answer could be in the response of an old person, the man and his son meet on the road. On being asked whether he wished to die, the old man replies 'No, but I might wish that I had died'. I think this encapsulates the human thinking on existence, most of us would crib that it may have been better that we had died earlier instead of facing such sorrow, but given a choice in the present, we most often tend to choose life than dying.
The novel is also relevant in our troubled times since we are probably only a button press away from a nuclear holocaust by some nut case, which would probably trigger a devastation that is similar to the ones in the novel. This is not some paranoid theory of mine, but something which can come true.