The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Not being overly impressed with the other two McCarthy books I'd listened to and finding the print version impossible to read, I didn't plan on tackling any more. However, I coouldn't resist this one because it was narrrated by the fabulous Tom Stechschulte and I wanted the company of his familiar voice.

The Road is one of those buddy, road-trip stories with a couple of differences: the buddies are a father and young son, and their trip takes place in a post-apocalyptic U.S. where few people are left alive and all of the infrastructures we count on, from food distribution to law enforcement, have disappeared. The survivors have become scavengers, governed only by whatever personal moral code they retain or, if banded together with others, by the mores of that group. Not so different from the wild west.

The father and son are headed south for reasons that are never explained, on foot, with their possessions in a metal grocery cart. They are regularly robbed of these possessions—blankets, coats, food—and sometimes replace them by stumbling over a cache that hasn't already been picked over. They try to avoid other people, not trusting anyone's motives and not wanting to end up as dinner for some ragged and starving band.

I found the story pretty boring, but kept listening, lulled by Stechschulte's voice. What I most liked was the father's protective care and concern for the child. I don't believe I've ever read about such devotion to a child from a man's point of view. At times the father almost seemed to worship the child, the one article of faith left to him, the embodiment of his only hope for the future.

In contrast, I thought of those self-centered parents today who abandon their children: fundamentalists who send their children to Christian boot camps to make them stop listening to pop music, rich people who buy their kids everything on earth and send them off with nannies or to boarding school, drug addicts who can't focus long enough to notice their children. Not all fundamentalists, not all rich people, not all drug addicts it goes without saying, but there are plenty of abandoned children at all levels of society.

Realising that I've read a lot of dystopias and end-of-the-world stories lately (Never Let Me Go, Children of Men, A Brief History of the Dead, Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid's Tale), I began to think about what it takes to survive.

In the early 1970s, I knew a man who had already recognised the fragility of our social infrastructures, something many of us didn't think about until the Y2K flap. He bought land in a remote area and stockpiled grains and beans in sealed metal trash cans. He collected hand tools and taught himself to fix any kind of machine, making parts when none were available. He didn't buy guns, like some survivalists, but there was a potential violence in him that convinced me he could protect himself.

The world didn't end. Food is still being delivered to the grocery store down the street; people still stop for red lights (most of the time); policemen and EMTs still come when you call 911. True, I seem to encounter the me-first phenomenon more and more often, especially on the highway, and wish the pendulum would swing back to more concern for the community as a whole. But it doesn't hurt to be reminded now and then of just how fragile the structure of our society is and how close we are to chaos.

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