Is the dark going to catch us?
I don’t know.
It is, isn’t it?
Come on. We’ll hurry.
The dark did catch them. By the time they reached the headland path it was too dark to see anything. They stood in the wind from off the sea with the grass hissing all about them, the boy holding on to his hand. We just have to keep going, the man said. Come on.
I can’t see.
I know. We’ll take it one step at a time.
Don’t let go.
No matter what.
No matter what.
In The Road, Cormac McCarthy details the intimate relationship between a father and a son on a post-apocalyptic journey to… well, to nowhere, really, or at least no final destination that they reach within the confines of the novel. The book begins on the road, only glimpsing at a referent of the world before, and ends on the selfsame road. The two have nothing. They spend the entire book pushing a cart, covered in a tarp and wearing rags, occasionally stopping to rummage for food in abandoned villages and once a shipwrecked boat along the way. What’s more, no single thing is important to them: the man discards his wallet with his various IDs and credit cards because it doesn’t match his current reality anymore. The boy plays a flute at the beginning of the book but throws it away, almost without comment. It serves neither their purpose nor their pleasure.
Continually, the man feels the need to justify his existence. His wife, the boy’s mother, chose to kill herself rather than live in a world covered in ash and filled with bandits of cannibals. The man and the boy, however, live and view living as their burden. The man promises that if it comes to it, he will kill the boy rather than have him exist in this reality alone. And yet, when the time comes and the man lies down to die, he cannot fulfill his promise. He tells the boy that he must continue on down the road.
The narrative moves between descriptions of the sparse post-apocalyptic world and unpunctuated dialogue between the two main characters.
Can I hold your hand?
Yes. Of course you can.
Are you scared?
It’s a quick book, lots of white space on the page, but far from a fun read. And yet, The Road has garnered much positive attention. Oprah (the connoisseur of all that is good and tender?) interviewed McCarthy and included The Road in her book club. McCarthy called it a love story written for his 11-year-old son. So despite how alienating a narrative this heart-wrenching can be, The Road wasn’t some depressing little text that sunk to the bottom of a Barnes and Nobles stack. It was wildly popular when it first came out in 2006. In short: we read it. I read it.
The man and the boy have a luxury that I often feel acutely aware of losing, or of never completely having. Over and over again the boy asks his father if he can hold is hand, if they are okay, if he can run down the road, if they are good guys. And every time his father tells him yes, of course he can. Yes, they are okay, he can run down the road, they are good guys.
The word “care” etymologically means in Old High German “to wail” or “lament.” To care is to gain something with an understanding that that gain signifies the possibility of future absence. When you have something, as opposed to having never had that thing you become open to the vulnerability of no longer having the thing. Thus: to care is to suffer.
The Road makes us sad not only because it depicts an incredibly depressing world, but because we see a relationship that we know and cannot have. The connection and intimacy between father and son, the original relationship that a person has in the world, is absolute. I want someone to hold my hand and tell me that its okay, that of course they’re there for me and everything will be alright and, furthermore, I am on the morally correct side of the world.
It is this desire for a part in the relationship between the man and the boy that draws us in, which allows us to attach ourselves so fully to the experience of consuming (reading) The Road. It reminds us of our flawed, human relationships with our own parents, friends and significant others. Because what is any relationship but a shadowy and distorted replication of that instinctual need to connect and be comforted, physically, emotionally and morally?
When the father dies, then, we are (I was) brought to tears. We want nothing but their safety and the continuation of their intimacy. However, there isn’t more; there cannot be more. The father has given all he can to his son and has to die on the road.
You need to go, he said. I can’t go with you. You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road.
The son leaves the body of his father on the side of the road, covered, and joins a larger group walking down the road in the same direction. The boy keeps going because there’s nothing else to do.
We, the reader, keep going too. We finish the last few pages and close the book. We make friends who are imperfect, we watch our loved ones get sick and die, we form bonds based on physical comfort, on emotional comfort, and we try to find a person who will always have their hand out for us because we care, they care. We know what absence feels like. We continue down the road. We lament.