Post-apocalyptic fiction isn't automatically better when written by Cormac McCarthy, but he does have a way of investing genre clichés with fine gray tones and morose poetry. In The Road, McCarthy sends an unnamed man and his unnamed young son on a trek through a procession of cities and towns apparently demolished by nuclear bombs. As they cling to each other for companionship and survival, McCarthy pulls them through all the familiar post-apocalyptic checkpoints. "The man" and "the boy" starve for days, then find unexpected stores of food and comfortable holes to rest in. They encounter wary strangers, try to steer clear of marauding cannibal bands, and face a daily choice: continue to move ahead, or commit suicide before they suffer a fate worse than death.
That choice gives The Road its queasy tug. In a cruel bit of narrative gimmickry, McCarthy establishes in a flashback sequence that the boy was conceived before the holocaust, but born shortly afterward, so he's never known a world without hunger and terror. His dad makes up romantic stories about "the good guys" who "carry the fire," and shares his own fast-fading memories of the boy's mother, who slashed her wrists years ago when she realized that they no longer had the three bullets they needed to all go out together. While the man ponders whether he'll have the strength to use their last two bullets when the time comes, McCarthy ponders his hero's miserable responsibility, keeping a child with no future alive because he can't bear to lose his only friend.
The Road is a metaphor for what every parent goes through to some degree, fretting over whether children really live for themselves, or merely as extensions of their parents' egos. McCarthy hits that note a little hard—and he completely oversells the notion of sacrifice in his flashback to the mother's florid final speech—but mostly, The Road is tonally spot-on, moving from one terse passage to the next, and continually horrifying readers just when the story seems to be heading to a more hopeful place. When father and son stumble upon a headless baby roasting over an abandoned campfire, the full force and devastating darkness of McCarthy's vision become almost too much to bear. And yet we press on. What else can we do?