Cormac McCarthy's stunning new novel of the apocalypse, The Road, is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who turn to literature for pleasant flights of the imagination. The Road is savage and grotesque, bleak and terrifying, inhumane but ultimately compassionate.
The setting is the end of the world, in which Earth has become nothing more than a charred, ash-covered rock strewn with dead bodies and black rivers. McCarthy describes "nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." Our protagonists are an unnamed father and son who, skeletal with hunger and faces covered with makeshift masks to filter out the omnipresent clouds of ash, are trying to make it to the Gulf of Mexico (now black and lifeless) before winter sets in. The boy is around 10 years old, and has known no life except this one of fear, starvation, and migration.
There are few survivors left on the planet, and a kill-or-be-killed mentality rules the land. The first man the father and son see on the road "was as burnt looking as the country, his clothing scorched and black. One of his eyes was burnt shut and his hair was but a nitty wig of ash upon his blackened skull." He had been struck by lightning. Later in the book, the son witnesses a beheaded infant roasting on a spit, and further on, our wanderers stumble upon a basement of human slaves, limbs missing and cauterized by fire.
In stark contrast to this eviscerated, nightmarish landscape stands the relationship between the boy and his father. The boy's mother committed suicide years earlier in the face of inevitable rape, starvation, and death, so the boy becomes his father's charge, and his only reason to continue living. The passages of dialogue between the two are soul-crushingly tender, as the boy is forced to recalibrate his moral compass with every step they take together. In this ravaged inferno of terror that McCarthy has so coldly depicted, only love, servitude, and a requisite amount of hope can be said to truly survive. Everything else is walking dead, and in presenting it as such, McCarthy has written one of the most haunting and hopeful books of our time.