It’s 2am and I’m crying. In fact, I’m not just crying, I’m sobbing. Tears are streaming down my face and flowing like Niagra Falls. I’m periodically gulping for air in between whimpers and moans. I didn’t have a bad day. I’m not having an emotional breakdown. I’m not depressed. I’m sobbing because of what I just read in a book.
This has never happened before. I’m no stranger to catharsis, I cry in movies all the time. I can’t get through films like “Schindler’s List” or “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy without shedding some tears. Yet, I’ve never been moved to tears while reading a book. Even when I read books like “Heart of Darkness”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “Jane Eyre”, and others, I never found myself so emotionally invested that I literally had to put down the book and weep.
Yet here I am, having just read through the emotional climax of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Road”, and all I want to do it curl up into a ball and cry myself to sleep. But I can’t do that, because the book isn’t over. That’s right, I’m still not finished with the book and I’m sobbing. But something about this book has moved me so deeply that I cannot help but bawl my eyes out. It’s not as if the death of the father was something I didn’t expect, the prose in the novel has foreshadowed this tragedy for some time. But still, his passing has moved me in such as way that I literally have to put the book down for nearly 10 minutes so I can cry.
Afterwards, I caught my breath, dried my eyes, and took a deep breath before picking the book back up again so I could read the last few paragraphs. Despite having one of the most heartbreaking emotional climaxes I have ever witnessed in any story, the book ended on a note of hope.
When I began to read the book, I was immediately hooked. From the start, I was invested in the characters. I would take the book to work, and I would read as much as I could between shifts on the lifegaurd stand. These would only be intervals of up to twenty minutes, and the pool was filled with noise. But despite the cachophy of sound that attempted to invade my concentration, I was completely immersed in the depths of the novel, oblivious to the world around me.
This experience has haunted me for some time. Not in a bad way necessarily, but in a way that even more than a year later, I still find myself thinking about the book and how it affected me on occasion. Even more curious is the question of why it moved me so deeply. The novel, which is about the physical and emotional journey of a father and his son across the terrain of post-apocalyptic America in search of warmer climates at the coast, is about as far removed from any experience I have ever had, at least on a surface level.
I am not a father, though I am a son. I have never watched a family member die before my eyes, nor have I ever been in a situation even remotely close to the kind of journey the father and son go through in this book. Yet there I was, sobbing, having been moved to tears by the father’s death. Why is this? What was it about this book that caused such an emotional response?
Every single word of the book gave me a vivid image of the post-apocalyptic world the man and the boy were wandering through. At times, I felt like I could feel the cold they had to suffer through, I could see the gray skies and dead trees and the ashes of a world that had already seen its end and was simply limping its way to the grave. In the scene where the man and the boy are woken by the sound of trees crashing as they fall down under the weight of the snow, I could hear exactly the kind of sound those huge, dead trees would make as they plummeted to the ground below. Each scene of the book further added to the vivid imagery and atmosphere of the story.
As I poured through the novel, I found it to be a paradox. For such a bleak work, I felt I was reading a real page-turner. I never wanted it to end, and I always dreaded having to go back to work. It was something I couldn't put down. Looking back on it, I am surprised that I couldn't put it down. In some odd way, I was torturing myself emotionally and psychologically, given the crushing emotional weight of the story. I could tell something deeper and more powerful than I had ever experienced was at work. I was connecting with the story and characters due to my ability to feel exactly what they felt, having experienced loss and disappointment in my life for several years.
I doubt that imagery alone could evoke such raw emotion from me, so there must have been something else at work. After more thought, I realized that there was something deeper. From the beginning of the story, I felt truly connected to the man and the boy, and despite knowing better, I wanted them to succeed in their journey. I wanted desperately for them to reach the coast and find warmer weather and sanctuary. Yet, like the man, I knew it was a fool’s errand and likely to lead nowhere.
However, that, in my opinion, was the whole point of the book. The road leads nowhere. There is no Elysium at the coast. Over the course of the journey, the man finds himself in dreams, where everything has been made right. These dreams were but memories of the days before everything turned to cold and darkness. “And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you? Waking in the cold dawn it all turned to ash instantly. Like certain frescoes entombed for centuries suddenly exposed to the day”. But he knows better than anyone that if he were to allow himself to be lost in the ecstasy of his memories of happiness, he would never return. He would be broken instantly. In that sense, it’s not the fact that the man died and their journey seemed to have been for naught. In fact, the man succeeded in his cause, which was to protect the boy. What was truly heartbreaking was the way in which the man symbolized the breakdown of humanity. There is something quietly terrifying about the scenes in which the man finally releases his emotions and weeps.
In retrospect, I think that more than anything, the book simply came along in the right time of my life. It’s not that I was depressed or anything. Quite the opposite, I was happy as a clam during that summer. I had a good job. I had a lot of fun with friends. The Dark Knight came out that summer, which was a huge deal for me, and to this day the film continues to inspire me and it’s impact has not yet faded from my conscious. I had just bought my first new game console in years (an Xbox 360). Life was good. So why is it that such a heartbreaking book could be said to have come along at the right time in my life.
Two of the thematic motifs that permeate the novel are loss and disappointment, disappointment in how things didn’t go according to plan. Since my freshman year of high school, I had experienced loss and disappointment at every turn. First my dad lost his job that he had been at for 17 years. Then my mom was laid off. After that, mom was in a car accident that fractured her neck (putting her in a halo brace) and killed our 8-year old beagle we had raised since he was a tiny puppy. My friend Andrew had been shot and killed.
Later on, Dad had gone through another lay-off and was finally beginning to get settled in a more permanent job, and mom had recovered physically and emotionally from the accident and found a job teaching at TCU, and we got another dog. I could tell things were starting to look up, but not without a few bumps along the way.
The summer before I read this book I had realized how I had deeper feelings for a dear friend than I expected, and in my attempt to tell her how I felt, I was ultimately rejected, and would have to recover from that. The school year before this summer I had gotten off to a rocky start in terms of grades, and though I felt I had found a strong social circle in the ACACIA fraternity, I screwed it all up when in a drunken stupor I unknowingly (I was blacked out and have no memory of this event) revealed the big secret of the pledge process to one of the pledges. Naturally, tempers flared, choice words were used, and I decided to gracefully bow out of the organization, at least until the dust had settled and I felt it was appropriate to return, though I never have done so, having decided that it’s not something I feel is a good atmosphere to be involved with at this time in my life. Needless to say, I was mortified and embarassed about the situation, and felt like a horse's ass. I had lost quite a few potentially great friends in the process.
Despite all of these setbacks and roadblocks, I found myself happy as ever that summer. But something about the themes of disappointment and loss, as well as the way memories can torment someone, resonated deeply for me. Besides the climax of the book where the man dies, the scene that struck me the most was when the man and the boy finally do reach the coast, and upon discovering that it’s not blue and warm and what they had hoped for, the two of them simply stare at it for some time, the silence finally breaking when the man says “I’m sorry it’s not blue”.
That sense of being crushed by how things didn’t go the way one had hoped, especially when the coast itself was the final goal for them, only to disappoint in the end, is a feeling I am all too familiar with. My clinical ADD has hindered many of my own ambitions, especially on an academic level. But when I read the book, it reminded me of disappointing outcomes on a far more raw and basic level than something like grades.
They had journeyed through hell, only to find that they had not reached heaven. Perhaps the man always knew this. After all, the man knows throughout the novel that he is dying. It’s no secret to him or to the reader, though he tries to hide it from the boy. In the climax, he tells the boy that the coast is no longer important, but rather the things he has taught the boy. He has held off his own death long enough to teach the boy how to survive. But without having found the salvation he had hoped for and promised in the coast, he decides to finally let go and allow death to take him. He has kept the boy alive, and that is more important than whether or not the water was blue.
The way his death plays out is more heartbreaking to me than the death itself. Like I said, I knew from the get go that the man was dying, the narrator of the book never tried to keep this a secret. But it’s the way in which he decided that it was ok to let himself feel the crushing weight of his emotions earlier, and that at his death, he had done his job to keep his son alive. In a way, that’s what truly spoke to me. While I had suffered loss more times than anyone my age should have to, the idea of finally letting go after carrying on for so long is at the core of the novel and is a feeling I found myself overwhelmed by.
After all the things my family and I had endured, from lost jobs to lost dogs, I always took it upon myself to remain strong, even when all seemed lost. I had to carry on and keep doing what I felt was the noble thing to do. But at the end of the day, it was nobler to finally just let go and let myself feel the crushing weight of all that had happened. I could finally weep.
“Then they came upon it from a turn in the road and they stopped and stood with the salt wind blowing in their hair where they’d lowered the hoods of their coats to listen. Out there was the grey beach with the slow combers rolling dull and leaden and the distant sound of it… Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the grey squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy.”