In this environment, McCarthy allows himself no spare words, but what he does use is a testimony to his craftsmanship. The novel is as sparse and clean as anything Hemingway or Carver has produced, and yet, in the pristine bone cracking cold of its prose is so much linguistic lushness. Every word is heavy with poetic richness. The book is full of metaphor, and the metaphors are used wonderfully, but so perfectly integrated is the language with plot and characterisation, that it’s possible to read this and not notice the metaphors. Instead the reader gets straight to the heart of what the metaphor is conveying:
He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings. An old Chronicle. To see out the upright. No fall but preceded by a declination. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must. (14)
Throughout the novel, the work takes its momentum from the pain of encroaching nothingness and hope simultaneously pressing against each other. The man loves the boy, but knows his own death is coming as he spits blood onto the ashy snow. The father and son spend the entire book seeking the good, and safe, struggling for life, with death and extinction everywhere. And yet it’s almost unbearably beautiful, almost intensely rich as the reader absorbs the desperate love between the boy and his father, and the boy's desperation to be one of the “good guys.” This is a book that hits the reader between the eyebrows with the ache of an ice cream headache.
Although the story centres myopically on the father and his son, there are other characters in the periphery. There is the mother, who isn’t in this story — having already coldly committed suicide before the story opens – but who populates the story through the father’s memory. She is part of the life and world he can only dream about, but can’t construct, in words for his son, or in reality. The boy was born in the early days of the tragedy, and therefore has no memory of his mother, and yet he is the embodiment of her – of a place his father once inhabited.