THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) - Four Stars
Too much post-apocalyptic media is focused on the apocalypse itself. We are with the protagonist(s) when tragedy strikes, and we follow them through the aftermath. "The Road" focuses several years down the line, when whatever threat that originally caused the apocalypse is long dead, and the survivors must deal with the new threats that have risen from the rubble. Indeed, the apocalyptic event in "The Road" is barely even mentioned. Vague flashbacks hint at a nuclear holocaust, but the whos, whys, wheres and whens aren't even thought about.
This vagueness and lack of detail permeates every aspect of the novel. There are no names: places are referred to as "the river" or "the house," the protagonists of the novel are simply "The Man" and his son, "The Boy." Time, too, is irrelevant: it is mentioned infrequently in monthly classifications, and McCarthy often leaps forward weeks at a time unannounced, leaving it up to the reader to determine how much time has passed. And, of course, the landscape plays right into this: dead trees, blasted earth, deserted cities. McCarthy's palette has no color, only a thousand shades of gray.
The simple plot: The Man, certain they won't survive another winter at their current location, leads The Boy south on a road to the sea, in hopes of finding warmth, food, and (theoretically) good people. However, the father is so fanatically protective of his son (and distrusting of every stranger) one wonders how anyone could ever get close enough to them (literally and figuratively) to be seen as good. The ruthless selfishness with which The Man protects The Boy precludes them from being anything but loners, and every day is simply a rote journey of trying to find enough food to stay alive while avoiding the roving gangs of starving cannibals.
Despite the constant threat, very little happens in the novel. The threat is constant, but again, just a kind of vague, gray threat hanging just outside the current events. McCarthy's biggest success is keeping the novel interesting and preventing it from sliding into monotony, despite the absence of intricate detail and the fact the same thing happens in pretty much every section of the book. All of this combined gives me zero desire to see the movie. This is a story that can only be told in literary form. If the movie is at all exciting, it hasn't been faithful to the book (which sounds like an indictment against the novel, when it isn't). Even the horror of what humanity has become is kept at arm's length for most of the novel, so when McCarthy hits you in the face with sparsely-placed gory details, they are doubly shocking.
However, the book lost some punch for me. Being as it is almost entirely about a father's love for his son, my own damaged relationship with my father (coupled with my total absence of desire to have a child) may have sapped some of the impact. To me, it was a three-star story written with five-star skill. And what skill! This is a master author at the peak of his game. Anyone with even a little interest at reading skilled writing should give the book a go.
In the end, the lengths The Man will go to for his son brings his own claim about being one of the "good guys" into question. It's just one last way McCarthy surpasses the standard. Instead of tackling the philosophically simple "how far would you go to survive?" McCarthy poses a far trickier question: "how far SHOULD you go?"