This book frightened a friend of mine, a father to a son, as he wondered throughout how he would deal with a similar situation as that in the book. That angle frankly never crossed my mind. Instead when I was done with this book I came away with the sense that I'd read the most realistic, heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting fable about fatherhood I'm ever likely to read.
The world of The Road has vaporized; virtually all living things are dead, nothing grows, no animals skitter and scrabble for survival; only a very few human beings remain alive on a husk of a planet ravaged by, most likely, total nuclear war. Seas and rivers are gray, ash and soot fill the air and cover the ground, burnt, irradiated or murdered bodies litter the landscape, and those remaining, some 10 years after the cataclysm, have become either cannibalistic bandits, or are kept alive for food, or spend their days trying to avoid a fate worse than death. The main characters, never named ("the man" and "the boy"), are a father and son who are walking from somewhere in the American northeast, likely the Appalachian mountains, to the Gulf coast so as not to endure another bone chilling winter. The boy was gestating when the world was destroyed and has never known a world teeming with life, with areas of safety and opportunities not just for survival, but prosperity.
The man, you come to intuit, surely understands that there is not likely to be anything better about the Gulf coast. With a sky that routinely blots out the moon and through which the sun can barely penetrate, it's going to be winter wherever they go. The boy asks if the ocean, when they reach it, will be blue. "I don't know," the man replies. "It used to be." Of course he knows it's not going to be blue. He's not naive. He is also unwilling to contribute to quashing any hope that for no good reason flickers in his son's heart. For the same reason, though throughout the book the man is coughing up blood and his condition is worsening, he does his best to hide this from the boy. Why?
Why make the journey under these circumstances? That is the central question and premise of The Road: When you can't hope for better, can't hope at all, you move because you have to move. It's objectively interesting and emotionally heartbreaking that the man doesn't so much as teach his son basic survival tips on their trip. The boy doesn't know how to care for their gun with the one bullet in it; he carelessly leaves it on the beach at one point and there is a frantic search, successful in retrieving it, now full of sand. They find a flare gun on a wrecked boat and the man offers to let the boy shoot it; the boy wants his father to shoot it, so he does; he doesn't even show him how to use a gun.
The most obvious answer to these curiosities is that it's hopeless; nothing the father can teach the son is likely to help him live on his own in a world the two of them are lucky to survive together. But they move. The man presses forward with his son and when the man is gone the son will have to live without him. In a world ravaged of life and hope, he probably won't, for long. But then you think about your own life, your own son, and you realize you move forward because you have to, you move, and you realize that once you're gone your son has to live without you. In the world of The Road there is no reason to hope he'll be successful. In our world, we have hope, but have we got anything else? Can we do anything more than viciously protect the boy, feed him, keep him warm and alive until we reach the end of our road? The most we can do is move, not stay still, not wait for death but try and outrun it, dodge it, keep it at bay as long as we have breath in our lungs.