Cormac McCarthy is well-known in literary circles. He has garnered numerous prestigious prizes and nominations, and several of his novels have been turned into movies, including the one under review. He is best known for the Border Trilogy of books, where his spare, forceful prose highlights the unforgiving landscape of the Mexican-American desert southwest.
In The Road, McCarthy takes his trademark style to a new landscape. While the setting is still in America, the time is a near-future, post-apocalyptic world. While McCarthy is never specific about what caused the cataclysm, the destruction is near complete. Trees are dead where they stand; there are no animals other than humans; a rain of fine ash falls constantly, interrupted only by strong storms that blow through on a regular basis.
In this nightmare landscape, a man and his son walk along the road, searching for food and ultimately for a place where they can begin rebuilding their lives. They push a shopping cart full of their supplies down the deserted roads and nightly seek refuge and safety by hiding in the surrounding countryside.
They have to leave the road regularly because other travelers are dangerous. Many surviving humans have turned into marauding bands of cannibals, and even a lone individual would steal from them if given a chance. They survive by eating canned foods they find in abandoned, ransacked houses, and they walk on, hoping against hope, to find a better life.
As they walk, the two witness some horrible scenes and try to talk about them and make meaning out of them. Though the conversations are often brief and monosyllabic, they point to ethical and moral dilemmas that the two face in the new, destroyed world.
McCarthy's prose in The Road is as powerful and lean as ever. He has found in the well-worn fields of science fiction a setting where his style and his vision of hope amid violence can flourish.