Cormac McCarthy discovered his voice decades ago, but maybe only now, with his devastating 10th novel, has he found the landscape perfectly matched to his cosmically bleak vision. Even the corpse-littered Texas-Mexico border wasn't quite flinty enough for McCarthy, who has never seemed more at home, more eloquent, than in the sere, postapocalyptic ash land of The Road.
The novel begins quietly, softly, in the woods at night. An unnamed man awakens from a troubling dream and reaches to touch his young son, to feel the rise and fall of ''each precious breath.'' The two are on the move, heading south, pushing a grocery cart through a ''cauterized terrain'' of charred trees and lifeless rivers. And in contrast to the instantly palpable tenderness between father and son, the surrounding horrors only gradually appear in chilling, offhand glimpses. Houses and supermarkets have been ransacked and abandoned; shriveled bodies lie, unburied, in bedrooms and old trailers; packs of men in gas masks wielding pipes roam the countryside, cannibalizing and raping. McCarthy never specifies what happened, beyond a single, sketchy flashback that suggests a nuclear disaster: Years ago, days before the boy's birth, the clocks stopped with ''a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.''
''The frailty of everything revealed at last,'' the man thinks. And with that frailty, so its forever-lost beauty, which torments him daily: the pinholes in a mantel that once held Christmas stockings; the ''quaint concerns'' in a salvaged newspaper; the memory of the theater where he once heard music with his wife. By night, he dreams of the old earth; by day, he and the boy struggle onward through the ash, repetitively asking and answering the same few primal questions: Are we still the good guys (the man in fact may no longer be)? What, if anything, do we owe our fellow creatures? Are we going to die? Would we be better off dead? To this last one, the boy's mother answered with suicide, announcing to the man, ''I am done with my own whorish heart.'' Her long and windy speech, which seems torn from another reality, is perhaps the only discordant note in an otherwise flawless novel. McCarthy has never done women well. Then again, neither did Michelangelo.
Early in the novel, the man carves his son a flute from some cane. As they walk through the ''ashen scabland,'' he hears the boy playing ''a formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin.'' The extraordinarily lovely and sad final pages of this masterpiece embrace both terrible possibilities.