Even within the author’s extraordinary body of work, this stands as a radical achievement, a novel that demands to be read and reread.
McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, 2005, etc.) pushes his thematic obsessions to their extremes in a parable that reads like Night of the Living Dead as rewritten by Samuel Beckett. Where much of McCarthy’s fiction has been set in the recent past of the South and West, here he conjures a nightmare of an indeterminate future. A great fire has left the country covered in layers of ash and littered with incinerated corpses. Foraging through the wasteland are a father and son, neither named (though the son calls the father “Papa”). The father dimly remembers the world as it was and occasionally dreams of it. The son was born on the cusp of whatever has happened—apocalypse? holocaust?—and has never known anything else. His mother committed suicide rather than face the unspeakable horror. As they scavenge for survival, they consider themselves the “good guys,” carriers of the fire, while most of the few remaining survivors are “bad guys,” cannibals who eat babies. In order to live, they must keep moving amid this shadowy landscape, in which ashes have all but obliterated the sun. In their encounters along their pilgrimage to the coast, where things might not be better but where they can go no further, the boy emerges as the novel’s moral conscience. The relationship between father and son has a sweetness that represents all that’s good in a universe where conventional notions of good and evil have been extinguished. Amid the bleakness of survival—through which those who wish they’d never been born struggle to persevere—there are glimmers of comedy in an encounter with an old man who plays the philosophical role of the Shakespearean fool. Though the sentences of McCarthy’s recent work are shorter and simpler than they once were, his prose combines the cadence of prophecy with the indelible images of poetry.
A novel of horrific beauty, where death is the only truth.