“Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony.”
In one of his rare interviews several years back, Cormac McCarthy suggested that writers who are not preoccupied with death are simply “not serious.” Chaucer might have objected, of course, not to mention Cervantes, Austen, or Swift. But, by his own standard, McCarthy’s new novel, The Road, is about as serious as they come. Death, especially violent death, has always been his métier. Now he offers his readers a novel in which death seems to have utterly routed the opposition and taken no prisoners: a gruesome yet mesmerizing vision of a world—our world—given over to death in the guise of what appears to be nuclear winter, a world of stupefying cold and drifting clouds of smoke and ash.
Dozens of novels dealing with the theme of nuclear holocaust have been written over the last half-century. None with which I am familiar comes even remotely close to the gut-wrenching realism of The Road. Much of the novel’s power depends on its stylistic austerity, its undeviating focus on the desperate plight of its two central characters: a nameless father and son, traveling south on foot out of the devastation...