For a more than decent summary of the plot of Cormac McCarthy's latest novel, "The Road," consult the Library of Congress boilerplate that follows the book's title page: "1. Fathers and sons--Fiction. 2. Voyages and travels--United States--Fiction. 3. Regression (Civilization)--Fiction. 4. Survival skills--Fiction." For that matter, it's not a bad imitation of the novel's style. Using the stripped-down prose that he employed so effectively in his last book, "No Country for Old Men," McCarthy spins an entire novel around two people, a father and his young son fighting their way through a post-apocalyptic world reduced to cold ashes and ruins. The action is equally minimal. The man and boy are traveling out of the mountains and toward the coast, searching for warmer weather and hoping to find someone neither malign nor crazy with whom they can join forces. McCarthy never says what happened to bring the world to cinders. Nor does he name his characters, or tell us how old the boy is or where they are exactly. He merely posits a world where everything is bombed out and broken beyond repair, soon to be populated by "men who would eat your children in front of your eyes" and looters who look like "shoppers in the commissaries of hell." Darkness is a perennial McCarthy theme, but here it is in full flower. "The Road" is the logical culmination of everything he's written.
It is also, paradoxically, his most humane and compassionate book. Father and son are genuinely affectionate toward each other. Each would give his life if it meant the other could live. This is as far as McCarthy has ever gone to acknowledge the goodness in people. And in the light of that relationship, the question that the novel implicitly poses--how much can you subtract from human existence before it ceases to be human?--takes on heartbreaking force.
"The Road" could have been a novella. Almost everything in the story--scrounging for food, hiding from the "Road Warrior"-like evildoers who haunt the highway--happens more than once. But the tedium that creeps in from time to time is integral to the narrative. Hunger and danger and cold are not just one-time obstacles for these pilgrims but things they must confront again and again; their courage lies in their refusal to give in. The boy and his father call themselves "the good guys." It's something a father would say to a son he wanted to guide and protect, but the more you see of these two, the more you want to remove the quotes from those words. They're not ironic. The characters' lives are gnawed down to the bone: all they have is their love for each other. And that, in the end, suffices.
One measure of a good writer is the ability to surprise. Terse, unsentimental, bleak--McCarthy's readers have been down that road before. But who would ever have thought you'd call him touching?