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The Road

05/19/08 5:55PM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth is a novelist who teaches at the University of Vermont. He got off to an early start on his summer reading list this year, only to confront a book powerful enough, and bleak enough, to shadow an entire summer.

(BARUTH) Ordinarily, I don’t review books - reading them is usually enough for me, and maybe mentioning them in passing to friends. So sitting down to actually write about a book almost always means that I had such a fantastic time reading the thing, I just can’t keep quiet about it. But in the case of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, my motivation comes from a different place entirely: it is an almost inconceivably bleak, troubling experience; but I survived it, and I’m determined to make you a survivor, too.

Unlike McCarthy’s other books, The Road is post-apocalyptic, with very delicate brush strokes of futurism. Something cataclysmic has happened to our world, but the facts and the history remain always just out of reach. While it has all the earmarks of an atomic holocaust - buildings have melted and cooled, and snow falls in a kind of perpetual nuclear winter - there is a selectivity to the devastation that also hints at some sort of biological warfare. Animals have disappeared; fish lie dead by the millions on the shoreline.

What we do know is that survivors are incredibly few, and everyone single one of them is quite literally starving to death before our eyes.

McCarthy focuses on just two: a man and his son. No names, very little backstory - and only by spending time with these two do we come to know the content of their characters. They are emaciated and so hungry that they eat dry seeds found on the floor of a deserted barn, but they will not steal from others. As they move down the everpresent road, pushing a shopping cart with all their belongings, they define themselves almost entirely by their actions: they are as kind to strangers as humans can be while yet remaining deeply suspicious of everyone they meet.

And they have good reason to be suspicious: most of those who have survived have done so by surrendering their humanity, by preying on their fellow men - literally, in many cases. Without digging too far into the book’s most troubling moments, it’s fair to say that they exceed your worst nightmares - and then some.

So terrified is the man that his son will fall into the wrong hands that he always presses their prized possession - a gun with one bullet - into the son’s hands when he leaves their makeshift camps, even for a moment. Only gradually does the reader realize that the boy has been taught not to fight off attackers, should they materialize, but to kill himself first. And it is McCarthy’s genius that we perceive all of these fatalistic preparations as marks of the deepest love.

Like the starving protagonists, the reader is forced to live on almost nothing here. There is almost no plot, other than a daily, even hourly, struggle to eat and stay warm. With the exception of the father and son, anyone we meet remains on the page for a few moments at best. There are no relationships, no accumulating incidents, no nothing. Nothing but the road, moving forward, not dying for a few more hours. That and the profound love of a father for his son.

You will finish the book, if you finish the book, feeling as though you’ve fasted for weeks: shaken, slightly lightheaded, and just possibly shining with enlightenment.
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