This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whisper. A man shivers under a tarpaulin in a forest, murmuring a bedtime story to his young son to keep the darkness at bay. The landscape around them has been charred by a fire of unspecified origin and unknowable extent. Nothing natural has survived the scorching. The trees are leafless, the sky birdless, the streams lifeless. Ash blows in swirls over the blacktop of the roads. Colour is abolished, the earth reduced to its residues. Through the vast dead wilderness trek the man and his boy, day after day, pushing their belongings in a shopping trolley. At night they lie up among the pines, while their strength dwindles and their hope shrivels.
Until Cormac McCarthy’s novel "The Road" (2006), apocalypse had always seemed a baroque affair, lavish in its melodramas of asteroid strike, nuclear blast and tidal wave; populated by petrolheads in rabbit-skin loincloths and black leather dog-collars. McCarthy stole apocalypse’s thunder, and produced something far more terrible because more tentative. He saw that apocalypse is about aftermath rather than grand finale. He knew that the one thing more terrifying than dying in a global catastrophe is surviving it. The disaster is over and done with in a single sentence: "A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions." What follows is the desperate business of endurance.
The landscape is recognisable, just, as a seared version of today’s America. The creased and greasy map by which man and boy navigate is torn from a highway atlas. They scavenge in looted towns whose billboards still pointlessly flog their products. They cross concrete overpasses on which juggernauts have jack-knifed. On and on they walk, heading for the coast—though what succour the ocean might bring them is left always hazy.
McCarthy is sparse with his topographic details, but we can guess at the route taken. Some of his many devotees have done so, publishing densely evidenced itineraries online, scrapping over whether they wander the barren south-west aiming for the California coast, or traverse Tennessee, cross the Smoky Mountains and at last make sea-fall in South Carolina. No such single route exists, as McCarthy slyly sets his novel in the brinklands of the actual and the counter-factual. His man and boy are nameless, so they are every father and every son; but the suffering they experience on their journey is scarily specific (the blood coughed into the man’s handkerchief, the boy’s ribs standing stark under his famished skin). The land is particular in its features—the mobile homes at the roadside, the "corrugate shapes of old harrowtroughs"—but allegorical in its bleakness. By offering glimpses of America, McCarthy binds us more tightly to his tale; by blurring it, he draws on the ancient powers of prophecy and myth.
I have read "The Road" more, probably, than any other book. A tale so fiercely bleak, so cauterised in its vision, is still a page-turner. It has entered my soul as a black version of a possible future, its effects felt bodily first: the steady creep of chill, an urge to hold my children tight. Man and boy plod on, page after page, and I read on, page after page, puzzled at my own persistence.
Hope lurks in both activities. It survives in McCarthy’s language: austerely beautiful, and proving the paradox of apocalyptic art, that to annihilate the world one must also summon it into being. Hope is there, too, in the boy, whom the father strives so hard to protect, and whose presence brings the possibility, however faint, of life after ruin. And hope is there in the father’s memories of the land as it was before: brook trout finning against the current of mountain streams, green-wooded glens humming with life, birds flocking and shoaling in the air. A world, in fact, not wholly unlike our own, in which human relations with nature are not yet irrevocably broken. This great novel is an act of hope because it is a warning, a calmly urgent reminder of what we stand to lose. "You can read me a story, the boy said. Can’t you Papa? Yes, he said. I can."