It's hard to put your finger on this novel, it is so haunting, powerful, and achingly grim. Perhaps it's partly that I have sons myself, and the sense of love and sacrifice is so readily identifiable. At times when I was reading the novel and then got up to tend to them, I found myself confused as to the reality I was in--the prose is this powerful. Yet the book is even more than this. It is a powerful meditation on death, where we truly are ashes to ashes, dust to dust--this post-apocalyptic world is covered in an ash that blots out the sun itself. The father struggles to survive in a world that has nothing left: no warmth, no vegetation, no food. The only food left is what is possibly unscavenged from homes and storehouses, and the last awful possibility: other people. The main threat to them are feral other humans who capture and eat them.
The father and son are caught between hiding and The Road, the constant moving forward in search of food and possible warmth. Houses may contain hidden food, or concealed dangers and traps. They must inexorable trod forward, though it all seems futile. The father is dying, and they both know it. Yet he pushes forward and seeks to save and make a future for his son, though the human race's final survival seems impossible. They have survived this far, however, and remnants remain. The book offers no real hope besides the fact that people are surviving, somehow.
The son pines for a simple morality: help others, don't eat other people. The father knows the grimmer realities, that to help others would kill them. They must survive alone if they are to survive at all. To feed the old man they meet, to take him with them, would risk their own lives. So they must abandon him and the others they encounter. Darwinian realities conquer common human mercies. It is a painfully lonely vision of the future, where the boy thinks he might have seen another boy and it drives him nearly mad, the idea of another young boy to play with. A parent knows how playmates are the great joy of a child, and this simple need of the boy's is made so real, and so painful.
The themes of darkness, ash, and starvation are relentless. Their constant hunger, with its images of slow starvation, are terrifying. Yet the prose is often lovely, despite the horrors and the many unknowns. The occasional beauty of McCarthy's words stand in contrast to the plot, which is direct and achingly simple. Even its characters are nameless and with little background. This element remains me somewhat of Waiting for Godot, where characters are similarly driven blindly towards an uncertain hope, and where a bare survival is all that is expected.
The moments of hope are few and rare. It's hard to think of another novel this bleak, except Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Similar themes of despair, of the cruelties that shut out all traveling mercies, make them both relentlessly painful reads.
The Road seems finally a meditation on death, and on the basic human reality that most parents die without knowing the future for their children. They cannot be protected or cared for in the end: this must be left for others to do. In this sense, it reminds of Gilead, another novel where a father faces an imminent death while considering the uncontrollable future for his son. Whether we live in the bosom of affluent America or a post-apocalyptic nightmare, our time is limited and we parents are mortal. Our children's futures are most likely unknown, cast to the wind. Will they survive and prosper? Or be hurt in countless ways? This to me seems to be the final, painful dilemma for the father of McCarthy's novel, and there is no answer, only a mute acceptance of mortality, a plea for forgiveness for all our many sins as parents, and a blind hope in the future.