Okay, first things first: forget the movie. If you’ve seen it, then you kind of have an idea of what the book’s about. And as movies go, it was pretty good. But, seriously – forget it. Because you have no idea.
Then. This. Read it.
He woke before dawn and watched the gray day break. Slow and half opaque. He rose while the boy slept and pulled on his shoes and wrapped in his blanket he walked out through the trees. He descended into a gryke in the stone and there he crouched coughing and he coughed for a long time. Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.
Ahhhhhhh!!!! That’s the sound of my mind being blown. It’s simple and beautiful and, damn it, just about perfect. But good god it’s also dystopian.
Ahhhhhhh!!!! That’s the sound of me being over the whole dystopian thing. The end of the world makes me tired. There are only so many orange skies and ash-strewn streets a man can handle.
There are exceptions of course. I nearly wet myself with excitement when I saw the Hunger Games trailer. The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsh is one of the best I’ve read. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff? Brilliant. But these, to my mind, are the exception. And I wish that weren’t the case. The end of the world gives the writer a chance to ask one of the most important questions: What are you willing to fight for? What will it take to make you become less than human?
So excuse me if I compare everything to THE ROAD. And maybe that’s unfair. Because we are talking about Cormac McCarthy. Still, I’d kill to see a book like THE ROAD in the YA section. I’d love to see this story told from the point of view of the Boy. But I fear that it isn’t big enough. That you’d need to throw some zombies or maybe a Girl into the mix. You know, to keep it exciting.
But… Ahhhhhhh!!!! The genius of THE ROAD is its simplicity. You have the Man, sick. Dying. You have the Boy – heartbreakingly innocent. Both of them are scared; the world is hell. And through it all, the reader is forced to deal with the over-arching fear of what would happen if the boy dies. Or, maybe worse, if he lives. Because the story McCarthy puts you in is surprisingly quiet. They look for shelter. They remember the life before. They eat and sleep and try to keep warm.
Yes, they’re running from caravans of men who are horrifying. And yes you begin to fear the next page. You curse McCarthy for making it impossible not to carry on. For forcing you to picture your son’s face overtime the Boy speaks. But, torturous as it can be, this isn’t what makes the novel necessary. Instead, it’s the question of morality; of God; of what it means to be the only light in a world that only knows darkness. It’s the Man dealing with the realization that he’s dying. That he will leave the Boy alone. And just think about that for a second. A boy. Alone in a world full of rapists and cannibals and people who are desperate enough to forget why all of this is so terrifying.
THE ROAD is less a book about the world ending and more about what it means to fight. To do whatever it takes to keep the most important thing in your life alive and safe – even if it means putting a gun to his head. Killing him to save him. It’s about the simple joys – a can of soda in an abandoned machine. Seeing your son smile even though he has no reason to do so. Seeing him still have hope, even when you no longer can. Stuff that, amidst the world of big plots and flashy covers, might not seem so special. So real.
Isn’t there something to be said about a book that truly investigates what it means to be human? Doesn’t that deserve a place on the shelf, love triangle or not?
Please. Please. Please. Be the writer brave enough to say, “I’m going to take the reader on a ride that isn’t dependent upon a trouser-twirling plot. I’m going to trust what’s inside them.” Their hearts. Their minds. Their ability to recoil in horror at things that are obscene and inhumane.
Our ability to put ourselves in the story is both the best gift we can give ourselves and the greatest trick an author can perform. And sometimes we need to be forced into a plot that scares us and makes us wonder what side we’d end up on. Because even though we all want to be in Gryffindor, most of us wonder if we’re strong enough. Most of us wonder, if the world went to shit, whether we could be the hero.
These are the questions that matter. The questions teenagers need to struggle with. The ones that make us investigate our strengths, our weaknesses. And maybe we’ll realize that being courageous and good isn’t something that is bound by the spines of our books.
That we don’t have to wait for the world to end.