There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of post-apocalypse novels, most of them by genre writers and therefore overlooked by the literary guys. Now and then a mainstream writer discovers doomsday, and the resulting novel gets a lot of play. The first one I remember like that was Philip Wylie's When Worlds Collide. Then came On the Beach by Neville Shute. And now we have Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which was such a hit that it won the Pulitzer.
It's basically a two-character story. The two, the man and the boy, are among the last survivors of some kind of apocalyptic event and they wander through what appears to be a nuclear winter, looking for food, starving, avoiding roving bands of cannibals and worse. They follow the road, trying to get to the sea. The man's not sure what he expects to find when they arrive. If they arrive. Maybe it's all about someone's search for meaning even where there is no meaning, or maybe it's about humanity's ability to hope when there appears to be no reason to hope. Or if there's no meaning at the end of the journey, maybe the journey itself is meaningful. Or . . . I think I'll stop now.
McCarthy's up to his usual stylistic tricks: no quotation marks, scanty use of the comma, and so on. This time he's very heavy on the sentence fragments, one after another. Took me nearly 100 pages to stop being irritated by them. I was brought up short by other things occasionally, sentences like this one: What are you doing? he hissed. You know what I'm going to say, right? Just try hissing it. And this one, which just made me say, "Huh?": . . . and the fire was good for no more than an hour or perhaps a bit more. But I liked this book better than No Country for Old Men, maybe because I have a weakness for post-apocalypse stories. It turned out to have a more hopeful ending than I was expecting. While it's not exactly jolly, it's not as bleak as the novel had prepared me for.
Here are a few of my favorite post-apocalypse tales, all of them as award-worthy as McCarthy's novel in my book:
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazny
On the Beach, Neville Shute
Earth Abides, George R. Stewart
Dr. Bloodmoney, Philip K. Dick
Through Darkest America, Neal Barrett, Jr.
Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank
The Postman, David Brin
The Stand, Stephen King
Swan Song, Robert McCammon
Farnham's Freehold, Robert A. Heinlein
The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett
Day of the Triffids, John Wyndam