I got my first taste of depressing post-apocalyptic fiction in high school with Stephen King’s The Stand. It has been more than a decade since I picked up that book but Randall Flagg, the bad guy in the story and one of the creepiest psychopaths I’ve read about, is still in my head until now. (I swear I did not Google him. Well I did, but just to double-check in case my memory is screwing with me.)
I just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy, yet another piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that seriously messed me up. From the very first page, I knew this was not going to end well. When a novel starts with “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world,” it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get a tidy little ending with sunshine and rainbows. And if you do, then throw the book away. It sucks.
McCarthy’s narrative is fairly straightforward. It’s about a father and his son travelling through a decaying world, where most people have died and the survivors either became cannibals or pitiful beggars. The cities are crumbling, the woods are unforgiving, and it’s always so damn cold. They live on whatever scraps of food and leftover supplies they can scavenge on empty houses. They’re heading south although they have no idea what they’d find there; it’s just supposed to be warmer. And with the perpetual desolation around them, there’s really no other choice but to keep moving even if the destination may be just as bleak.
Father and son remain unnamed throughout the story and yet they were so real and so vivid that it’s almost impossible not to care about them. I turn into a nervous wreck every time the man left his son to look for food, worrying that the boy might not be there when he comes back. Damn you Cormac McCarthy. This book is pure emotional torture and you got a Pulitzer Prize for it. What the hell.
And then came the ending. I knew what was coming but I was still hoping against hope for sunshine and rainbows because no matter how cynical I seem to be, deep down I’m still very much a sucker for happy endings. (Yes Disney, you have succeeded in brainwashing me when I was six. Hats off to you.) And after the heart-wrenching torment that the story has put me through, it would’ve been nice to get a reprieve. But no such luck.
My personal melodrama aside (sorry about that), the ending wasn’t completely miserable. It was in fact more hopeful than any “happily ever after” could ever be. It caps off a story of a love so fierce it endures and perseveres long after civilization has collapsed and the world as we know it has fallen apart. And… I’ll leave it that before I turn yet again into a blubbering emotional wreck. Damn you Cormac McCarthy.