Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a quick read -- McCarthy's spare and lyrical prose, at times hypnotic, propels the reader forward, making the book an out-and-out page-turner, even when not much is happening -- but it's not an easy one.
The post-apocalyptic world of The Road is desolate, burned, and ash-strewn, devoid of any life, plant or animal, save a handful of pitiful, vagrant humans. Two figures, a father and a son, both unnamed, seek deliverance from their hopelessness by trekking the titular road with a shopping cart filled with all their worldly belongings. Their destination is the coast, where they hope to find some semblance of stability, a terminus to their wandering, and most importantly a reprieve from the world's perpetual winter, since the sun has been blotted out by "the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming the world."
Along the way, father and son scavenge for food in abandoned homes and grocery stores. These scenes, and there are many, underscore the desperation of their situation. They not only have to survive near-starvation, but also the cannibals (most surviving humans have turned to eating human flesh) that may inhabit every building they enter. Every time the father and son enter a building, you feel as if the two have ventured into a sinister fun house, where the opening of a door or the turning of a corner brings anxiety and dread.
McCarthy's central metaphor is the road our duo walk. It is a symbol of lifetime, the linear path we all move along. It is the potential bringer of salvation, or of marauding hordes who literally hope to devour us. But most of all, the road is a symbol of movement, of resilience, of forward motion even when it seems to be a fruitless endeavor.
Is it fruitless? By the end of the novel McCarthy implies no. The Road is a novel of survival, of the "carrying [of] the fire," by which McCarthy means the continuation of life, of humanity. At the center of the novel is the father's determination to give his son the only gift he can give him: a life, a future.
By The Road's final pages, the pathos McCarthy builds throughout the novel becomes palpable and heartbreaking. McCarthy leaves it to the reader to decide how humanity will fare. What remains unequivocal is his portrayal of the raging against the dying of the light, a fight humans have had to wage in the darkest moments of history, most recently in the totalitarian nightmares of the 20th century. But, as McCarthy shows, there is one fundamental choice: to succumb, or to move on down the road.