I know why McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for this. It is an extremely powerful novel that operates effectively on two interconnected levels.
First, it’s a gripping story. A man and his son, trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. You feel for them. You want them to survive in this world gone mad. You want them to get away and be safe. The horror is real when they find the locked basement full of people who are being kept by cannibals for the stringy meat on their bones, one of them laying on a mattress on the floor with both his legs amputated and his stumps burned black to stop him from bleeding to death. Their flight from there, their concealment in the woods under a pile of leaves, their dark and dangerous trek—your heart is in your throat the whole time. And when they get away, and they find the bomb shelter full of canned goods, and plates, and silverware, and new clothes, and soap. The relief and joy in the father’s voice is palpable and strong and true.
I listened to this one as an audio book, and some random reviewer on the site I purchased it from cautioned against that, cautioned that you have to read and linger over McCarthy’s prose to really appreciate it. Having listened to it, I can see that reviewer’s point, and fully intend to get the hard copy and add it to the pile of books to read. But hearing the voices speak to you, especially in a scene like the bomb shelter, is an experience I will not soon forget.
But that’s only one level of the book. The other level is deeper and more primal, and is just as powerful on its level as the suspense story is on its. This is a book about every man and his son, the characters deliberately not given names to accentuate the archetypal role they are playing. And as this man struggles to protect his son from the horrors of their world, we see every man struggling the same way to protect his son from the horrors of his world. There are times when the man gets angry at the son, and he is immediately sorry for being so, and gives his son every indulgence they can afford, from the syrup in the can of cling peaches they find to the grape Kool-aid he finds and keeps until he gathers enough rain water to mix with it. He tells the boy things about their situation in ways they boy would understand, that there are good guys and bad guys in the world, and that they are part of the good guys and that they must “carry the fire” of the old world until they join up with other good guys so that the fire can be strengthened. He risks his own life to keep his son alive, to keep his son from harm, and does things the boy is frightened by or does not want him to do, because he knows that the act is in the child’s best interest. And at the end of the novel, when the man lays dying, he remains strong for his boy and tries to help him understand both what is happening and what he must do after the man has died.
“You need to go on. I can’t go with you. You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.”
“It’s all right. This has been a long time coming. Now, it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did.”
“You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.”
“No. I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you can’t take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?”
“I want to be with you.”
“You can’t. You have to carry the fire.”
“I don’t know how to.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Is it real? The fire?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
“Yes, you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”
“Just take me with you. Please!”
“I can’t. I can’t hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could, but I can’t.”
“You said you wouldn’t ever leave me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.”
“Will I hear you?”
“Yes, you will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you’ll hear me. You have to practice. Just don’t give up. Okay?”
“I’m really scared, Papa.”
“I know. But you’ll be okay. You’re going to be lucky. I know you are. I’ve got to stop talking. I’m going to start coughing again.”
“It’s okay, Papa. You don’t have to talk. It’s okay.”
In all of these actions we see not only the truth of what we would all do for our sons if we were in the same awful circumstances, but also the truth of what we do for our sons every day in our lives here and now. That is ultimately what makes the novel so powerful.