"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him."Summary: A father and son wander across a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape in the aftermath of an unexplained global disaster. (If this doesn't sound like much of a synopsis, it's because there's not much of a plot.)
Reaction: After all the hype (and a Pulitzer Prize), I expected more from The Road. This was my first McCarthy novel and I was thrown by the lack of any punctuation except for periods and (a few) commas. (After learning that all his books lack punctuation, The Road will likely be my last McCarthy novel.) In interviews, McCarthy claims that his lack of punctuation and simple declarative sentences make his books easier to read. Um, no. I am usually a speedy reader, but the book's style slowed reading to a crawl. This isn't to say I'm a grammar purist. I'm open to experimental lit if there's a reason for it. Ey injoyd the poast pokliptik speek in Hoban's Riddley Walker and the weird formatting of Danielewski's Only Revolutions; in both cases the format added to the reading experience. In McCarthy's case, I get the impression that the formatting is his attempt at a distinctive literary gimmick. An unknown author probably wouldn't get this book accepted by a publisher. Why should McCarthy, when the publisher knows his name will sell it?
The style and formatting were peeve number one. Number two is the setting. I'm a fan of hard sci-fi and post-apocalyptic fiction. I also appreciate internal consistency in what I read. I didn't expect an in-depth explanation of the disaster that destroyed the world. McCarthy never explains and that's fine. The setting serves its purpose by providing emotional and physical obstacles for the boy and the man to overcome. But the setting doesn't make sense. Most species of life on earth (including plants) are dead. It has been years since the disaster. Preserved food should be gone. Cannibals should've turned on each other. The logistics of survival don't make sense in the world of The Road. Then there's the climate. It is consistently described as cold, muddy, slushy, rainy, etc. Yet there are always fires burning on the horizon. Fires usually burn in the dry season, not in the middle of a damp, cold, (maybe) nuclear winter. The setting is suitably hellish, but distractingly implausible for anyone who is accustomed to quality world-building. Some might argue that scientific accuracy is less important than conveying the bleak destruction surrounding the characters. For me, the nonsensical world short-circuited the gritty feel of the book. I was constantly reminded that the scenario was impossible and this lessened the impact of the novel.
Finally, the substance of the story. The interaction of the man and boy - father and son - is the highlight of the otherwise frustrating novel. The plot is minimal, but the simple exchanges between the two characters illustrate the bond between them. With the mother out of the picture, the son is all the man has left. McCarthy shows the persistence of fatherly love in the face of certain death. (The novel follows their journey toward a warmer South, but this is only a delaying tactic as irreplaceable scavenged food dwindles.) The book also explores the persistence of innocence at the end of the world. The father's drive to keep his son alive at any cost conflicts with his son's desire to help the other survivors they occasionally encounter. Compared with the obvious (and boring) post-apocalyptic external conflict, the maintenance of the son's innocence in the face of his father's love is the most compelling aspect in the novel.
Bottom line: An unnecessarily painful read with poor world-building (from a sci-fi perspective), but interesting character interactions.