Several long and horrible years after a worldwide nuclear holocaust, a man and his boy wander an American South where ransacked buildings still stand but all the animals are dead. Ashes fall continually from the sky. There is nothing to eat.
The unnamed father and son wander toward the sea. Pushing a cart full of rags, they're homeless people in a world where all the homes have vanished. Somehow, McCarthy makes long descriptions of foraging for food and supplies suspenseful -- partly because of his detailed and evocative lists, and partly because these two are the ultimate underdogs. The entire planet has either gone dead or is aligned against them.
We're pulling for the father, hoping he'll find a few unspoiled cans of peaches in the next dusty and long-ago-picked-over cabinet: His boy's life depends on it. They spend long nights huddled together under tarpaulins against the sooty rain. The marauders out there in the darkness, however, aren't interested in protecting children. They just want to eat them.
Violence is hardly new to McCarthy's work. The systematic scalping in Blood Meridian (1985) is horrific, but at least its 19th-century historical context renders it comprehensible. Trudging down The Road, however, we see that history is over; beauty and art, long gone. And yet compassion -- simple generosity, the sharing of bread crusts and tattered blankets -- somehow continues.
McCarthy sprinkles his spare prose with surprising words -- "crozzled," "gryke," "salitter" -- because his is a chronicle of unprecedented loss: "At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulchre. Senseless. Senseless."
The Road is a novel to be read slowly but persistently, late into the night and alone: slowly, for the poetry; alone, for the creeping horror; persistently, to replicate the survival struggles of the father and son.
Unfortunately, it perseveres toward an ending that, while not unprepared for, feels get-it-over-with abrupt. Four pages from the end, I was overwhelmed by emotion; moments later, I was rolling my eyes. Despite that, McCarthy's final paragraph conjures beauties and mysteries beyond human comprehension.
Stephen King, writing in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, has chosen The Road as his favorite book of the year. Except for the ending, I'm with Steve.