Closely following last year's violent but engrossing pot boiler, No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy recently released a new novel that thrusts him in the forefront of great American novelists. The Road is reminiscent of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Instead of two tramps, an unnamed man and his young son travel down an ash-covered road through an ash-covered post-nuclear holocaust, scavenging for food and avoiding roving bands of cannibalistic "bad people." The liner notes for the book describe it well: "A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls, it is gray."
McCarthy's style is sparse like Hemingway's, yet has that lyrical descriptive power that drives his brilliant Mexican-border trilogy which begins with All the Pretty Horses. He sets the tone for The Road early in the book: "With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasn't sure. He hadn't kept a calendar in years. They were moving south. There'd be no surviving another winter here."
One element in The Road that was missing from No Country is love, the same longing that made the journey of the two young boys in the border trilogy so compelling. The Road's father, suffering from tuberculosis, fiercely protects his son by shooting a man who sees the boy as a sex object and food. The survival theme has been dramatized before, including a Fred Astaire film about a world devastated by nuclear war, but it is McCarthy's prose and sense of drama that keep the story fresh and ultimately disturbing. The Road could have been a short story or novella and, at times, seems a bit tedious, but that may be the point. The reader suffers the difficult monotony of survival with the man and his young son as they search a barren landscape competing with roving predators. They can never pause too long knowing even a campfire will attract thieves and killers.
Despite this grim theme, there is the promise of hope and the bond of love. As he's dying, the father tells his son, "You're going to be lucky. I know you are." Perhaps goodness will find the son, perhaps not. With The Road, McCarthy has created a classic that expands his range as a novelist.