When I was a kid, I went through a period of being fascinated by nuclear war and its aftermath. Perhaps it was because there were still yellow and black fallout signs littered around my elementary school? Anyway, I checked out many books (titles now forgotten), both fiction and non-fiction, predicting what the world would be like if we all knocked one another off. Unsurprisingly, these books resulted in a lot of sleepless nights for a ten year-old.
In light of my childhood obsession (and concomitant sleeplessness), it's not shocking that I put off reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road for so long. A man and his son plod through the endless ruin of an apocalyptic world littered with exactly the horrors that kept me awake: gray snow, corpses, wracking coughs that shudder up blood, and an utter lack of sun. The family of two has no hope, and no reason to believe that things will be any better through the mountains and on the southern coast, which is where they're headed. All they have is their love and the man's need to keep his son alive.
The writing is as bleak as the story I've outlined. The novel is short and bereft of any unnecessary words or punctuation. Even so, the language is gorgeous, evocative, and powerful in its spareness:
"No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy, I have you."
-- p. 54
Like Beckett, McCarthy somehow manages to imbue all of this despair with the possibility of redemption, even in The Road's most frightening, sad moments. If all of this isn't enough to make you start reading, The Road is being made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen -- so if you read it now, you'll be ahead of the curve.