The Road BY Cormac McCarthy. Knopf. Hardcover, 256 pages. $24.

The cover of The Road

The premise of Cormac McCarthy's new novel, The Road, is simple: In a ruined, postapocalyptic future, a nameless father and his young son—"each the other's world entire"—trudge down a road toward the ocean, with the hope of finding a warmer, more hospitable locale. Along the way, they scrounge for cans of food in cities and countryside already thoroughly pillaged by other refugees. Death from starvation and exposure hovers, but a more immediate terror is the constant threat of dismemberment by roving bands of cannibals, for this is what most survivors have been reduced to. There is an urgency to each page, and a raw emotional pull in the way McCarthy, the poet laureate of violence, known for brutal and biblical novels like Child of God (1973) and Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985), renders the father's attempts to keep alive the hopes of the young boy as well as his own, making it easily one of the most harrowing books you'll ever encounter. Nearly unreadable in its heartbreaking detail, it is also, once opened, nearly impossible to put down; it is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive.

Hardcore fans would have forgiven the seventy-three-year-old legend (the galley cover announces "His New Novel," as if God himself had written the book) had he produced another in his recent string of accessible novels. Some might see it as a return to form, but The Road diverges from his earlier work as McCarthy switches the focus from the hunters to the hunted. And some might see this free-floating futuristic nightmare as a radical departure, yet for true believers who'd followed the signs in his previous work, this is where they hoped he would arrive.

Awful things happen in each of his other books, but they are done by and to characters who seem to be situated in the distant past, even in his last novel, No Country for Old Men (2005), set along the present-day "Texico" border. Nabokov famously called his characters "galley slaves," and reading McCarthy, you've always felt that he's had a similarly iron grip on his people, an army of loners and misfits advancing their leader's relentless crusade to hold on to a vanishing America. With his singular prose—part biblical invective, part southern gothic, part Faulknerian locution, all in service to a Melvillean obsessiveness—McCarthy has raged against the erosion of traditions, the fading of ways of life, the obsolescence of trades, the forgetting of dialects. He has championed a rugged, individualist rural survivalism practiced by marginal men and women, refugees, seekers, the sick and the weird, outsiders. Many of these characters are presented as horrible, unsavable—an "encampment of the damned" is how McCarthy refers to the band of losers in Suttree (1979), his sprawling tale of Knoxville misfits surviving in the cracks of the city. While many of the characters in that book are drawn from real life, the novel isn't autobiographical. McCarthy did, however, as a young man turn his back on Knoxville society, and he has lived in the shadows ever since.

Born in Rhode Island, McCarthy moved to Tennessee at age four, when his father began working as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He left college, joined the air force for four years, and moved back to Knoxville. He completed his first four novels, each of them set in Tennessee, then drifted down to El Paso, where he absorbed the violent mythos of the West, writing five more novels, his reputation shifting from the South's Son of Faulkner to the True Voice of the West. Not much more is known about the recluse. In his forty-plus-year career, McCarthy has given all of two interviews, one in 1992, to the New York Times Magazine, and one in 2005, to Vanity Fair, both to Richard B. Woodward. The portrait that emerges is one of a social conservative with a mission to write unsentimentally about the brutal lives of the formidable individuals who staked their claims westward.

"There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," he said in 1992. "I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous." In 2005, he picked right back up on the theme: "Most people don't ever see anyone die. It used to be if you grew up in a family you saw everybody die. They died in their bed at home with everyone gathered around. Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. To not be able to talk about it is very odd."

While many authors write about extinction, some obsessively, what separates McCarthy is how candidly unredemptive his portrayals of violence and fatality are. His most gruesome work, Blood Meridian, is also the one most critics consider his best, and to judge by the appearance in 2001 of a Modern Library edition, it has entered the postwar pantheon. In the novel, McCarthy takes the American myth of regeneration through violence and manifest destiny and thoroughly guts it. Following its stunningly simple first line—"See the child"—McCarthy refuses to comfort us with meaning as he follows a mid-nineteenth-century Tennessee teenager who drifts down to Texas and winds up in a band hunting Apache scalps in Mexico.

McCarthy's spectacularly inventive descriptions of landscape capture the familiar character of the West yet at the same time completely defamiliarize what you think you know. As clear as an Ansel Adams photograph, McCarthy's landscapes are simultaneously surreal, a world wholly of the author's own creation. In the way that Faulkner's South is very like the real South but also totally different, McCarthy's West is unmappable, yet you can swear that you've seen it:

All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.

Page after page of the novel is covered in blood, first from the native Apaches whom the band relentlessly hunts down, then from anyone who happens to cross its shadow. The scalp hunters are led through this blighted land by "the judge," an amoral, shaved-headed giant who doesn't so much justify the carnage as explain its usefulness: "War is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god."

McCarthy's tour de force was hailed by critics, yet it failed to garner him a wide audience. With his lack of sentimentality and his linguistic invention, McCarthy never made things easy for his readers, ensuring his status as a "writer's writer." His core fans, those weaned on, say, Child of God, an arguably sympathetic portrayal of a serial-killing necrophiliac, however, couldn't wait to see where he'd go next. Where could he, after hell?

To these readers, All the Pretty Horses (1992) and the following two novels of the Border Trilogy, The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998), seemed to be something of a retreat, à la Ian McEwan going from the narrow-gauge grimness of The Cement Garden (1978) and Black Dogs (1992) to the diffuse if sweeping epics that are Atonement (2002) and Saturday (2005). Yet what some thought of as McCarthy lite turned out to be widely popular, the postwar cowboy sagas generating big sales and many awards. When All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award,
it seemed like a makeup prize for Blood Meridian, which had been overlooked seven years earlier.

Set above and below the Rio Grande near El Paso, the Border Trilogy nevertheless pushes McCarthy's themes of loss and fatality, albeit in a sweeter fashion, building in honest-to-goodness love stories. The slowly fading traditions of ranch life, along with the tension between staying in the family's hard-won home (Texas) and exploring the wild unknown (Mexico, and Mexican women), are treated with surprising tenderness. The novels constitute a shift from Wagnerian thunder to Puccinian storytelling, from Götterdämmerung to the sad tale of Madama Butterfly. While one marvels at the unrelenting brilliance of Blood Meridian, it is hard to connect emotionally with any of its characters. In that book, McCarthy sought to capture a complete worldview, a total synthesis of the idea of the West; it is about condensing reality, about "the beauty of a sudden density of life," as Milan Kundera puts it in his just-published book-length essay, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, about the use of history in fiction. Few tears are shed as most every character in Blood Meridian is killed. Yet I doubt there is anyone—even in McCarthy's core audience of fervent male fans—who doesn't bawl when it becomes clear that the boy's wolf isn't going to make it in The Crossing.

If the Border Trilogy feels a bit sepia, No Country for Old Men (which came out last year, seven years after Cities of the Plain) is starkly black-and-white. In the novel, set in the present-day Deep Southwest, McCarthy tracks an ill-fated welder named Llewelyn Moss who stumbles upon the aftermath of a heroin-gang shootout in the desert, makes off with $2.4 million, and is then chased by all sorts of nasty outlaws. With the feel of a fleshed-out screenplay, this noirish novel is crisply paced, its staccato narration broken only by the ruminations of the old Texas sheriff who pines for the simpler days of Colt-packing outlaws, not the new bands of amoral hoodlums with Uzis (it seems he didn't read Blood Meridian). Yet there are echoes as he pines, "You cant go to war without God." And Anton Chigurh, the ice-cold killer who comes to retrieve the stolen money, could be related to the judge. At one point, Wells, another bounty hunter, confronts Chigurh's otherworldliness:

"You think you're outside of everything," Wells said. "But you're not."
"Not everything. No."
"You're not outside of death."

There it is again: death and more death. However, in No Country for Old Men, the murderous rampage is distant, symbolic, mathematically elegant, balanced. There is some metaphysical musing but nothing that would prepare readers for the new novel, or even for The Sunset Limited, McCarthy's play (recently staged in Chicago and New York) that is being published simultaneously with The Road. McCarthy's plays (there is one other, 1994's The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts) are more thematically direct than his novels. While both new works confront mortality, the novel is about persisting to live, the play about persisting to die. Both mark a departure for the author—while his first five novels were primarily concerned with killing, his last four have been about obsolescence, and now, finally, he's either facing death head-on (in The Sunset Limited) or outrunning the grim reaper (in The Road).

In The Sunset Limited, two nameless men, referred to only as Black and White, sit in the black man's kitchen. Black, a religious ex-con who happily lives in a flophouse where he tries to save the "moral leper colony," has just caught the white professor as he tried to hurl himself in front of an oncoming train. Over the course of the play, White explains with great erudition why he is going to try to kill himself again, while Black, armed with only rough life experience and religious conviction, tries to talk White out of death. It's a bit like watching a prizefight between a seasoned vet and a plucky, totally overmatched greenhorn.

"The things I believed in dont exist any more," White argues. "It's foolish to pretend that they do. Western Civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys at Dachau but I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now." Later, Black can only come back with "Sometimes faith might just be a case of not havin nothin else left."

Against such simple faith, McCarthy loads up his white challenger with an unstoppable nihilistic arsenal: "The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different. I've no idea why we are even still here but in all probability we will not be here much longer." Zap!

"Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility." Pow!

And finally, the kicker: "Every road ends in death. Or worse." Bam!—on the canvas.

But what could be worse than death? With The Road, McCarthy gives us his answer. The Road isn't Faulkner territory, or Melville. It's more like the philosophical locale of another drifter iconoclast—Joseph Conrad, especially the ideas found in his masterwork, Heart of Darkness. Think of Conrad's meditation on the breakdown brought on by hunger: "No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don't you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its somber and brooding ferocity?"

The Road opens with the father and son starving and very cold. The father believes that they will be safer farther south, so they must follow the road, pushing their meager belongings in a shopping cart while scrounging around for overlooked tins of food. It is the ruined landscape familiar from past novels, yet now it is truly blasted from some unnamed conflagration and is blanketed with falling ash and frequent cold rains. "By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp."

Even the page seems blasted. McCarthy long ago ditched apostrophes, but now there is a swath of white space after each paragraph, as if to set off every moment as a struggle simply to live. You still need a damn good dictionary (what the hell is a gryke, anyway?), but the prose is stripped down to essentials, like the world itself: "The frailty of everything revealed at last."

McCarthy's descriptions of tools are informative, tactile, and specific; he understands their intimate connection to human survival—the saddles and all of the accoutrements of riding horses in his western novels, and of course the guns in all of his novels ("The rifle strapped over his shoulder with a harness-leather sling was a heavybarreled .270 on a '98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut"). In The Road, the mechanics of tarps, wrappings, firemaking, and even the shopping cart are precisely rendered. A wobbling wheel could spell doom, so "he pulled the bolt and bored out the collet with a hand drill and resleeved it with a section of pipe he'd cut to length with a hacksaw."

The dialogue, too, is minimal, and mainly limited to what is essential to the pair's minute-to-minute survival. The father's focus narrows and then becomes narrower still: "The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true."

The boy's mother has killed herself rather than try to survive any longer. The father recalls trying to talk her out of abandoning them; he argued, "Death is not a lover," to which she replied, "Oh yes he is." The father carries a gun with enough bullets to kill his son and himself. When the two finally do come across another human, he is as scorched as the land, having recently been struck by lightning, but is somehow still alive. It is a horrible vision, yet one that feels like a moment of levity compared with the scenes of lonely terror preceding it. Despite the boy's protests, they leave the smoking man and cautiously proceed.

All about are signs of cannibals—lines of skulls, blood in the grass where victims have been "field-dressed." In one of the most memorable scenes in Blood Meridian, cocksure cowboys attack a ragged band of horse thieves, only to find themselves ambushed by an army of Apaches hiding amid the horses. "A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical . . . or silk finery and pieces of uniform still tacked with the blood of prior owners." In The Road, these "horribles" have morphed into a cannibal army, which the father and son observe marching past as they hide in a ditch: "The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry." If that isn't horrific enough, they encounter a smaller group of cannibals, who trap people going down the road and eat them piece by piece, keeping their victims alive for as long as possible.

In this grim world, the young boy still carries with him a yellow toy truck, and in a moment of pure pathos asks his father, "Are we still the good guys?" The father tells him, "Yes. We're still the good guys." Yet he can't help thinking the worst, for they are facing the worst: "He saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable."

Amid the bracing immediacy, we begin to detect a Beckettian dilemma of intelligent existence: Why go on when there is nothing to go on for? And if you know that there is nothing down the road, do you travel down it anyway?

The boy stoically soldiers on but finally asks his father, "What are our long term goals?"

"Our long term goals."
"Where did you hear that?"
"I dont know."
"No, where did you?"
"You said it."
"A long time ago."
"What was the answer?"
"I dont know."
"Well. I dont either. Come on. It's getting dark."

Reduced to an almost animalistic state, their thoughts of a future have been obliterated. After fleeing the cannibal trap, they come upon an old man who could be right out of Beckett's How It Is, his novel about an old man carrying a sack of canned goods through the mud. The stranger blithely walks down the road, not trying to hide like the other refugees, too thin and decimated even for the cannibals. The father engages him in a Beckettian inquiry about his reason for going on, culminating in:

"Do you wish you would die?"
"No. But I might wish I had died."

The two are undeterred: "Then they set out upon the road again, slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep." The biblical language suggests that theirs is a pilgrimage, that the boy, if he lives, could save the world. Yet McCarthy offers no such redemption. All faith has been lost. Everything has been lost. And after yet another close call, the father almost wishes that they had been caught or that he had had to shoot his son and himself. God, or perhaps McCarthy himself, seems to taunt the father: "Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground."

They travel past unspeakable horrors—a charred infant on a spit, masses of mummified people in melted cars, their masks of terror frozen in the moment of the conflagration—onward toward the sea, which the father cannot tell the boy for certain will be blue.

The Road is a deeply imagined work and harrowing no matter what your politics. Perhaps it is a projection to say that McCarthy needed to remain outside the literary world to write this, that the Border Trilogy and No Country for Old Men were diversions, practice runs for his most emotional work to date. It's as if we need him to be pure, to stare down death for us.

Toward the end of The Road, the father—and McCarthy—see the ultimate blackness all too well:

Perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.

Rob Spillman is editor of the literary magazine Tin House.