A father and his young son journey across post-apocalyptic America some years after an extinction event. Their names are never revealed in the story. The land is covered with ash and devoid of life. The boy’s mother, pregnant with him at the time of the disaster, committed suicide at some point before the story begins.
Realizing they cannot survive the winter, the man takes the boy south along empty roads towards the sea, carrying their meager possessions in their knapsacks and a supermarket cart. The man is suffering from a serious cough and knows he is dying. He assures his son that they are “good guys” who are “carrying the fire”. The pair have a revolver, but only two rounds. The father has taught the boy to use the gun on himself if necessary, to avoid falling into the hands of cannibals.
The father and son evade a traveling group of marauders. The father uses one of the rounds to kill a marauder who discovers them, disturbing the boy. They flee the marauder’s companions, abandoning most of their possessions. When they search a house for supplies, they discover a locked cellar containing captives whom cannibal gangs have been eating limb by limb, and flee into the woods.
As they near starvation, the pair discovers a concealed bunker filled with food, clothes, and other supplies. They stay there for several days, regaining their strength, and then move on, taking lots of supplies from the bunker with them in a new cart. They encounter an elderly man with whom the boy insists they share food. Further along the road, they evade a group whose members include a pregnant woman, and soon after they discover an abandoned campsite with a newborn infant roasted on a spit. They soon run out of supplies again and begin to starve before finding a house containing more food to carry in their cart, but the man’s condition is worsening.
The pair reaches the sea, where they discover a boat drifting ashore. The man swims to it and recovers supplies, including a flare gun, which he demonstrates to the boy. The boy becomes ill, and after spending some time on the beach recovering, their cart is stolen and they desperately look for it and those who took it. Eventually they find a single man with the cart, the father threatens him and forces him to strip naked. This distresses the boy causing the father to return and leave the man’s clothes and shoes on the road, but the man is nowhere to be found.
In a town inland, the father is shot in the leg with an arrow by a husband and wife. After the father kills the husband with the flare gun, the pair move further south along the beach. The father’s condition worsens further. The father weakens, and after several days he realizes he will soon die. He tells the boy he can talk to him in prayer after he is gone, and that he must continue without him. After he dies, the boy stays with his body for three days. He is finally approached by a man carrying a shotgun, who has a wife and two children, a boy and a girl. He convinces the boy he is one of the “good guys”, and after helping the boy wrap his father in blankets in the woods, takes him under his protection.
Best known for his Border Trilogy, hailed in the San Francisco Chronicle as “an American classic to stand with the finest literary achievements of the century,” Cormac McCarthy has written ten rich and often brutal novels, including the bestselling No Country for Old Men, and The Road. Profoundly dark, told in spare, searing prose, The Road is a post-apocalyptic masterpiece, one of the best books we’ve read this year, but in case you need a second (and expert) opinion, we asked Dennis Lehane, author of equally rich, occasionally bleak and brutal novels, to read it and give us his take. Read his glowing review below. –Daphne Durham
“His tale of survival and the miracle of goodness only adds to McCarthy’s stature as a living master. It’s gripping, frightening and, ultimately, beautiful. It might very well be the best book of the year, period.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Vivid, eloquent . . . The Road is the most readable of [McCarthy’s] works, and consistently brilliant in its imagining of the posthumous condition of nature and civilization.” —The New York Times Book Review
“One of McCarthy’s best novels, probably his most moving and perhaps his most personal.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Illuminated by extraordinary tenderness. . . . Simple yet mysterious, simultaneously cryptic and crystal clear. The Road offers nothing in the way of escape or comfort. But its fearless wisdom is more indelible than reassurance could ever be.” —The New York Times
“No American writer since Faulkner has wandered so willingly into the swamp waters of deviltry and redemption. . . . [McCarthy] has written this last waltz with enough elegant reserve to capture what matters most.” —The Boston Globe
“There is an urgency to each page, and a raw emotional pull . . . making [The Road] easily one of the most harrowing books you’ll ever encounter. . . . Once opened, [it is] nearly impossible to put down; it is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive. . . . The Road is a deeply imagined work and harrowing no matter what your politics.” —Bookforum
“We find this violent, grotesque world rendered in gorgeous, melancholic, even biblical cadences. . . . Few books can do more; few have done better. Read this book.” —Rocky Mountain News
“A dark book that glows with the intensity of [McCarthy’s] huge gift for language. . . . Why read this? . . . Because in its lapidary transcription of the deepest despair short of total annihilation we may ever know, this book announces the triumph of language over nothingness.” —Chicago Tribune
“The love between the father and the son is one of the most profound relationships McCarthy has ever written.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“The Road is a wildly powerful and disturbing book that exposes whatever black bedrock lies beneath grief and horror. Disaster has never felt more physically and spiritually real.” —Time
“The Road is the logical culmination of everything [McCarthy]’s written.” —Newsweek
Top customer reviews
As far as dystopian literature goes, this is quite a step.
The story of a father and his son, walking to the sea through a ravaged, cold and grey world, hoping to somehow, find a better place, doesn’t leave much space for a happy ending. Bleak is truly bleak here, not a lot of silver linings!
And yet…and yet, this is a beautiful book.
The writing is fantastic, for starter. The style, with short and descriptive sentences, carries the story to perfection. It also has a poetic quality that softens what is said/described and gives it another dimension.
The real beauty of the novel isn’t on the outside though, but resides inside, in the incredible bond uniting father and son, a love so deep and unconditional that it seems to erase age gap and life experience, to only focus on their desire to care for each other. This love and concomitant sense of humanity stripped to its essence, manage to give sense and meaning to their otherwise hopeless journey.
On a deeper level, it also seems to invite us to reflect on what makes a life meaningful: beyond a primal survival instinct, what makes life worth living even when there is no hope in sight? The Road’s answer is that, ultimately, what matters isn’t “what” makes your life, but “how” you choose to live that “what”…
I’m a father. I read The Road years ago when my son was nine. I honestly had no idea at the time that I was picking up a book about a father and his roughly nine year old son. That’s not a spoiler, you find that out on the first page.
Look, Cormac McCarthy writes so well I actually come back to his books on my shelves and open them up randomly, just to read a page and soothe my brain. But he digs the knife in so deep. I’ve actually hesitated to review his books before because there is so much beauty in the writing I just don’t have the first ability to get a sense of it across.
More than that. I actually resented him after finishing this book. I wanted to shake his hand and punch him in the face. Maybe that’s why I waited so long to finally admit this book deserves any accolade I could give it.
I finished The Road while sitting on a plane in Hong Kong, waiting to take off in the rain. I was a grown man, struggling so hard not to sob out loud that I started to choke. You might want to try “All the Pretty Horses” first, or even “No Country for Old Men,” but those will grip you, too. I’ve never seen the man pull a punch. I think it also might depend where you are in your life. Just take my advice, if you’re a father and you have a young boy, hold off on this, or at least read it when no one is around.