Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Road (Knopf) presents a vision of unrelenting grimness as two nameless characters, a father and his young son, make their way beneath a sunless sky through a world adrift with ash, trudging across a post-apocalyptic America where it appears that no living thing apart from them remains. It is a setting pared down to the bare essentials: not a single place name identifies the landscape, and there are scant clues as to what cataclysm has occurred; we are told only that there was “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” Whatever happened, happened years before the present moment, and the survivors have used any and all means—pillage, slaughter and far, far worse—in their brutal struggle to survive. Furtive and vulnerable, the two head south without apparent destination, pushing a salvaged shopping cart that contains the little they have preserved. There are no crops nor any hope of crops; no birds; no fish; the only food is what they can glean from the scorched ruins of towns along the road. The one flicker of hope that McCarthy allows in all this darkness is the father’s love for his son. “We are the good guys,” he reassures his boy, despite his own well-founded doubts. Through his earlier novels McCarthy has become known as a master prose stylist, employing words and phrasing that recall the Book of Job. In The Road he has tempered his Old Testament thunder, and the effect is that of coals banked so that they might burn throughout the night. In such a setting, in such a book, it is extremely difficult to be optimistic; nor should we be. Despite an unconvincing ending, this is essential McCarthy: a parable and a warning, the kind of tale a prophet would tell with little hope of being heard.