That The Road was both a hardcover best seller and a paperback best seller cannot be entirely attributed to its being a pick of Oprah’s Book Club or to its winning McCarthy the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. You can lead a horse to the apocalypse, but you can’t make him stand around in it for long without a considerable supply of carrots. You certainly can’t make him turn the pages of The Road in about a day and a half, which is what I did. Prior to The Road, I had little interest in McCarthy’s work—I never could bring myself to care too much about those cowboys and their ponies and all that violence. None of it seemed especially real. The Road, however, despite its speculative premise—a father and his small son traverse a postapocalyptic world somewhere in America, heading to the sea in the infinitesimal hopes of rescue there—is perhaps the most visceral novel I have ever read. McCarthy’s radical simplicity of elements, which seemed mannered to me in his other fiction, is here just the way things are. There aren’t that many things left: a scattering of trees, a road, a man, a boy, ash, a tarp, perhaps a tin can or two of food. He uses few colors, little dialogue; action is pared down to a very limited, exhausted register. You cannot help but want the man and the boy to make it, to want the novel to make it, to want language itself to make it over the abyss.
Yet the magic of The Road lies in what it does to one’s perception of the world as it is, and my hunch is that this is why it was a best seller. Every element that McCarthy erases from his landscape—buildings, cars, people, bridges, farms, animals, daylight, music—are immediately summoned up, via this subtraction, by the reader. We know what’s missing from the world he describes, because when we raise our eyes from the page, we see it all around us. The wooden desk, the tube of ChapStick, the scratching dog, the pile of binder clips, the face of the beloved: We feel tremendous relief that they’re still here, a nearly unbearable pleasure in their ordinary presence. The Road brings us, essentially, into a kind of near-death experience that renews our deep love of this world, the only one we’ve got. It is the most radically secular book I’ve ever read, and it challenges us: Are you willing to lose this, all this that you see around you, for a war, for energy, for a religious belief? Watching the images roll toward us recently from Japan, I felt, because of McCarthy’s novel, that I had seen them before. It was a terrible feeling.
Stacey D'Erasmo's most recent novel is The Sky Below (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).