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Desolation row

Father and son traverse a postapocalyptic landscape in Cormac McCarthy's The Road

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 241 pp., $24

As our brimstone preacher of the world's natural beauty and the iniquities of man, Cormac McCarthy hasn't so much tempered his Old Testament voice over the years as he has redirected it. There are the telltale signatures: the quoteless dialogue, the weird vocabulary (``isocline," ``torsional"), the narrative of outrage occasionally outdone by some small piece of redemptive glory. ``It's a mystery," a crazy old prophet tells the boy in his magisterial 1985 novel, ``Blood Meridian." ``You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow." No need for four-dollar words in that little speech.

No American writer since Faulkner has wandered so willingly into the swamp waters of deviltry and redemption; the best of McCarthy's ``later" novels -- ``All the Pretty Horses" and ``The Crossing" -- have suggested a turn toward some kinder piece of naturalism. But the problem with a talent so large-spirited and idiosyncratic is that it lends itself to parody. In his 2005 novel, ``No Country for Old Men," he delivered a bone-chilling morality play about a psychopath stalking the good guys with a cattle gun; the scant hope of the novel belonged to a reactionary sheriff who longed for the old days and his wife's cooking.

Sheriff Bell would be a whole lot sadder still were he around to witness the world of ``The Road," a post apocalyptic horror story set to a dirge. Unfolding in a spartan, precise narrative that mirrors the bleakness of its nuclear winter, the novel follows a nameless man and his son through the wrenching specifics of trying to live through one day, then the next, for no reason beyond each other. It's Beckett at its most gritty: You-must-go-on-I-can't-go-on, with ash in the skies and dead oceans and cannibals roaming the ruined earth.

Yeah, the cannibals got to me too. A post apocalyptic novel can obviously only take you so far, and there are moments in ``The Road" that don't seem so much preposterous (granted, we would have to eat something) as they do hokey -- I kept seeing zombies in my mind's eye, which is not a good image recommendation for serious literature. Still, beyond the inherent technical difficulties of concocting the unthinkable, McCarthy has rendered a greater and more subtle story that makes ``The Road" riveting. The exterior action is swift and direct: How far will they get that day? Will they find food or escape the treacherous wind on a freezing beach at night? This essentially spare and unsparing landscape carves the way for the more important interior story: As the man's memories leave him -- he abandons a photograph of his beloved wife, now dead, and then regrets his action -- the essence of life itself begins to leak away.

What happened to get us in this fix is rightly never addressed. Instead we are thrust into McCarthy's bleak and sonorous world, where ``the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." The man may have been a doctor in another life, but there are only hints at the world before -- the boy, too, is of indeterminate age in a weatherless atmosphere that may be October. The man's consciousness, the perspective from which the novel unfolds, is caught in a daily struggle between caring and letting go. In order to survive, he has to give up on the lure of the past; in order to find a reason to survive, he has to preserve it. This is the dilemma of grace and despair at the heart of ``The Road," manifest in the love -- call it godly or human -- between father and son.

They are walking, south and to the sea. Time itself has disappeared, leached into same and nameless days; the man can no longer remember the boy's birthdays. They have a gun with two bullets, a shopping cart with a tarp and a few cans of food; their supplies dwindle and change with the ransacked houses they find. The glass in the cities has melted; the sea has no smell. One day the father asks the son for a story, and the son says, ``I dont have any stories to tell."

That dull sorrow may be McCarthy's worst indictment of where they are now, but there is, too, the man's remembering of what he is forgetting -- that state of still-knowing, poised between regret and paralysis. ``The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. . . . More fragile than he would have thought." This is the dark center of ``The Road," and it's usually hinted at rather than exploited -- even with his lapses into grandiloquence, McCarthy is too seasoned a writer to over dramatize what may be the last drama of all. Nor does he reach toward happy implausibility: no cities being rebuilt here, no little Atlantis community beckoning from the gray horizon.

Instead there is one more empty house ahead, maybe one more unsearched pantry. These details appear with such ominous, then joyous occasion that the reader feels a bone-deep identification with the characters' plight: their sleepless nights and gritty tarp and wrenching physical distress. And to its credit, you don't see what has to be coming in this endgame novel -- a moment of such simple goodness and humanity that even its elegiac fact is a thing of comfort.

To call ``The Road" a departure from McCarthy's previous work seems a ludicrous understatement -- what else to say about the end of the world? But he has written this last waltz with enough elegant reserve to capture what matters most. And he renders the ruined heartbreak of a dying world: a place where not just the grass is gone, but the smell of the grass -- a place where there may be no witness left to see or care.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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