Let no one tell you it is depressing. It is the most hopeful of books, one in which there is nothing material upon which to base hope, no future, no brighter tomorrow, yet the light refuses to go out.
In the apocalyptic future, in a dead world of ash and burnt-out cities, in a world where only a tiny spark of life survives with nothing but itself to feed upon, a father and son travel the road from the cold north of what was America toward the southern coast, and warmth. The mother, understanding that there is no life left to be lived, has embraced death and left her two males to walk the bleak path alone.
The boy asks two questions of his father, again and again, whether for his own reassurance or for the father's remembrance. Are we the good guys? Do we carry the fire?
The bad guys are capturing and holding people to breed and eat. That 's all there is left of living sustenance. Those who refuse to cannibalize humanity forage for what remnant of canned goods others have overlooked, and it is obvious that as time continues to pass, the only hope of survival will finally lie in destroying one another. Ultimately, Death will not be cheated.
Yet, in this burnt-out world where man-directed flames have destroyed all that can sustain life, the fire the good guys carry takes on a poignant meaning. The boy carries the fire and the father carries the boy, though the father does not have the light. Once we, the readers, understand this painful truth, the author spins out the ending for us, honest and sad and correct. We are ready to accept it when it comes. It is both reassurance and warning.
I am in awe of this writer. He actually accomplishes what Hemingway and Joyce attempted. His writing is spare, stark in its simplicity, but like a poem that does not reveal that it is poetry. Fragmented. With only essential punctuation. He draws us in with the cadence of modern speech and opens our world to us using form as function.
And yet, he is kind. There is no point at which the reader finds himself on the brink of collapse or screaming for relief. McCarthy gives us vignettes of simplicity just a beat before we realize we need them. He tends us well. There are three moments in the book where the travelers are allowed the comfort of shelter and food--moments essential to the father who carries the corruption of the old culture, the need for the comforts of the corrupted culture that has been destroyed. The boy does not need them. He transcends the material. But we, the readers who are living in the culture that gives rise to this devastating end, we must have these moments to sustain our ability to follow the path to the end.
McCarthy tells us the truth. Like most of us, he carries the fire, but the fire is not in him.