It's the ultimate pairing: Cormac McCarthy plus the apocalypse. As an author who has delivered some of the darkest moments in modern fiction via books like Blood Meridian and Child of God, McCarthy seems uniquely suited to an exploration of what the world might be like at its end. With The Road, he has developed this nightmarish scenario into an affecting and compassionate novel, as an unnamed father and son wander without hope through a blasted, barren landscape. The exact nature of the catastrophe that has reduced the world to a wasteland is never precisely specified, but there are hints that the event was nuclear-related. In an eerie flashback, the father recalls a long shear of light, and then a series of low concussions . . . a dull rose glow in the windowglass. The results charred corpses in melted cars, a constant rain of ash, the wiping-out of all wildlife are there for father and son to witness as they make their way on the road of the book's title, pushing a shopping cart filled with their few possessions. To stay in one place is to invite attack from other survivors, who have formed primitive communes and engage in cannibalism, and so the pair are, for all intents and purposes, doomed to eternal travel.
But as father and son pick through the remnants of civilization in search of edible food and serviceable clothing, encounters with other people are inevitable, and when the boy shows concern for his fellow survivors, his father unsympathetic and protective forbids him to make contact. These moments of opposition between boy and man, despite the book's tense, menacing atmosphere, come across as classic instances of father-son sparring. The earth may be in an arrested state, but the pair's relationship continues to evolve, its course progressing naturally. McCarthy's depiction of their bond is remarkably delicate and sympathetic. The fact that their fate could be our own adds a layer of dark fascination to the novel, a perverse allure. Indeed, a speculative account of this kind is bound to arouse a sort of obscene curiosity in its audience, and to that end, reading The Road is a bit like observing the aftermath of a car accident you want to look away, you should look away, but you can't.
Coming from McCarthy, The Road feels inevitable. It's an absolute expression of his rather nihilistic worldview, the farthest possible extension of his aesthetic. Last year's No Country for Old Men introduced a more accessible style from the author, and with The Road, the trend continues. The novel doesn't strive for epic status, nor is it weighted with the broad metaphors and sweeping rhetorical passages that characterize McCarthy's previous work. The writing in The Road is his most direct to date, the prose less elliptical and easier to process than ever before. Yet, there's no mistaking where you are when you read The Road: in McCarthy country–terrible, beautiful, and like no other place in contemporary literature.
Julie Hale writes from Asheville, North Carolina.