The Road by Cormac McCarthy MacMillan, HK$165 Cormac McCarthy's characters have trudged the Earth from the 1840s to the near-present, struggling to follow the tracks of America's past, understand its present and survive for a future. In his 10th novel, the austerity of his prose finds its ideal setting in a 'cauterised terrain' after the apocalypse. An unnamed man and his young son are 'treading the world under like rats on a wheel' for hundreds of wintry kilometres as they head to the US coast in search of a sustainable life. Almost all flora and fauna have been obliterated by a catastrophe that's never explained. Ash covers the ground and the sky. Dead trees fall in the night. The few remaining humans eat each other or fossick for man-made food. Born at the time of the apocalypse, the boy has seen a baby's body roasting on a spit. He needs his father to survive and to teach him how to be human. He urges his father to show morality and compassion for invalids they pass on the road, but he's terrified of sleeping in man-made structures, which he associates with human abattoirs. The man struggles with the anguish of showing his son how to kill himself if he's caught by cannibals. He girds himself to pull the trigger on the boy if he must, and is haunted by thoughts of the wife who committed suicide rather than face the lost world. A part of him 'always wished it to be over'. 'He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He'd had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down around a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.' McCarthy boils the planet down to despondency, asking how gods fare when men can't live. He maintains a grey tone but demands attention to every word, each sentence relying on its predecessor. Skip one and the trail is lost. The Road is McCarthy's ruthless challenge to see goodness and purpose in the impenetrable despair he depicts. Every page creates expectation father and son will be annihilated, or, worse, the elder will forget to remind the younger they are good guys destined to evade evil and find others who 'carry the fire' - a myth he's developed to keep them going. The boy is the saviour for civilisation: 'If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.' McCarthy, 73 and the father of a young son, pushes to new depths of biblical bleakness and finds reason to live. That will shock hardened McCarthy readers even if the desolation of The Road fails to finish them off. Fans have snivelled more with each of his departures from the cowboy-era gore of Blood Meridian. The Road is unlikely to appease them or woo new readers. But it should. Like the loners of his novels, McCarthy is on his own path. He's followed the underrated No Country for Old Men, a rare exploration of the US in the late 20th century, with what many will see as his least American novel. But the absence of any discussion of US culture and the missing cause of the apocalypse leaves the reader staring into the ashen void and asking if The Road could be anything but the great American writer's post-September 11 rumination.