In The Road, Cormac McCarthy tells of a father and son who walk south, through a ruined, dead America. They are heading toward the coast. Few buildings remain. Everything is covered with ash. They are threatened, menaced, by others. They often go hungry. The only sustaining note is the father's protective love for his son.
Much is left unexplained, or half-explained, in this powerful novel. McCarthy scatters clues about what has happened in America; his real subject is the tenderness between the pair, and the humanity each is able to summon despite the horror made commonplace around them:
In a pocket of his knapsack he'd found a last half packet of cocoa and he fixed it for the boy and then poured his own cup with hot water and sat blowing at the rim.
You promised not to do that, the boy said.
You know what, Papa.
He poured the hot water back into the pan and took the boy's cup and poured some of the cocoa into his own and then handed it back.
I have to watch you all the time, the boy said.
If you break little promises you'll break big ones. That's what you said.
I know. But I wont.
McCarthy's language echoes the blasted landscape, direct and mesmerizing. He communicates fear, and cold, in a way that transmutes directly to the reader (I shivered as I read, in sunny Los Angeles). Like a latter-day Donner Party, this pair struggles through challenges previously unimaginable to the father. The son knows nothing else. But unlike the Donners, these pilgrims have no idea what they will find when they get where they are headed.
The journey of The Road is the point, a journey that McCarthy takes the reader on, step by painful step. Despite its gravity, the tale is not depressing; it is what it is, testimony to what is rare yet endures. The Road, in its plain language and stark narration, is one of the best books I have read this year.