Cormac McCarthy wrote a harrowing, dark story about a post-apocalyptic world, and it has many horrifying and graphic scenes. This warning is important, because the reviews on the book say things like “it’s gripping, frightening and, ultimately, beautiful.” Which is true, in a high-minded sense, but does not at all convey the levels of depravity and ugliness that come through in the pages between the covers. Given this warning, it is a momentous book that very mature readers can appreciate, carrying with it a beauty-in-the-ugliness message that ends with a tiny sliver of hope for humanity. I would recommend it for mature readers who want to explore the depths and limits of humanity after culture and norms are stripped away.
The story is about a father and son walking a long road after the apocalypse ruins almost everything. The author often references ash covering everything, though never says how it came about — volcanic ash, nuclear war fallout, etc. They are hungry and tired and walking hundreds of miles to the coast, where they have a vague hope for a better life than what they left. Most people have died, and they regularly come upon abandoned homes where people’s remnants are found. There are roving bands of deplorables, who feast on people and take anything they can find, which causes the father and son to hide each night and rarely use fire. They occasionally find food and fuel to keep them going, and they bring canned food along with them in a shopping cart. There are a few extremely horrific scenes about the depth of depravity that some humans would go to, and these are unfortunately seared into my memory. The father teaches the son about some things, giving him room to develop as a person, and occasionally there are stories about what life was like before everything changed — though not many, as the father doesn’t see the point in telling fanciful tales of a world his son will never experience. He does say that there have to be some good people left in the world, and that they are two of them. They tiptoe around the idea of faith in an afterlife, though really only in the sense of believing it has died, as no God could allow this to happen to the world. The father also has an undefined cough and physical ailment, which not unexpectedly gets worse over the course of the book. They ultimately reach the ocean, where they find a wrecked ship and scavenge some additional supplies. The father then gets too sick, tells his son that he’ll have to go on without him, and passes away. The son is soon-after approached by a woman, who tells him about a nearby commune that has been watching them, and invites him in. It ends with this sliver of hope, that a small community of good people does exist (the first good people found in the book, besides the father and son), and that perhaps they will help create a good world again. Or, perhaps, they too will perish.
The story struck a particular nerve with me because the son is roughly the age of my eldest son. The thought of him seeing some of the scenes described, or of experiencing the sadness, loneliness, terror, and hunger, or of saying goodbye to him on my deathbed all brought an overwhelming sadness. I was lucky enough to read much of this book in one sitting at night, and in the morning gave him a giant hug. At the same time, it did help me gain a better perspective on our current world — while there are certainly problems, and there is a nasty streak in our modern politics, it is a hell of a lot better than the world this father and son inhabit.
The story is not one I will forget for a long time, as it was dramatic, striking, and explicit. With that said, there does remain a sliver of hope towards the end, and thus leaves the reader with a modicum of positive emotion. If you are in the midst of an existential crisis or in the depths of despair, this book may feel appropriate. It doesn’t offer sunshine, but perhaps a single ray of hope.