Cormac McCarthy's novel

The Road

has not only been a best seller. It was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It's even an Oprah's Book Club pick.

Not bad, considering what a lousy book it is.

Let's start with the style, an off-putting blend of the numbingly simple and the highfalutin. Take the second sentence: "Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before." Makes you almost yearn for Bulwer-Lytton's good old "dark and stormy night."

There's plenty more where that came from. "The snow fell nor did it cease to fall." ". . . [W]aking in the night he knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it." (Well, empty would imply an absence of substance, wouldn't it?)

". . . [E]yes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders." (Spiders' eggs, having no eyes, certainly are sightless. Anyway, why spiders' eggs?)

"Have you a neck by which to throttle you?" (Have you a mouse by which to click off your word processor?)

Cormac in simple mode isn't much better:

You walk too fast.

I'll go slower.

They went on.

Variants of the phrase "they went on" recur constantly: "In the morning they went on. . . . In the morning they pressed on. . . . They slogged all day. . . . They trudged all day. . . ." You get the idea.

McCarthy eschews such conventions as quotation marks for setting off dialogue. Contractions like don't and can't are - as McCarthy himself might put it - bereft of apostrophes. Lots of sentence fragments, too. Portentous, those. Emblems of a broken world. ("They trudged on. A frail slush forming over the dark surface of the road.")

Which brings us to the narrative. A man and a boy - father and son - are making their way somewhere. Going south. Toward the sea. The book's title would seem to imply that they're following some road. But the man - none of the characters are named - doesn't seem to have a very clear idea of where they are, and keeps consulting a map that has fallen into pieces: "He sat studying the twisted matrix of routes in red and black with his finger at the junction where he thought that they might be."

The boy's mother is dead, by her own hand. Did it "with a flake of obsidian. Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick."

The time, presumably, is the future. Something - ash is everywhere, so a nuclear war is the best guess - has wiped out every living thing on the planet except a bunch of human stragglers. Some, like our footsore duo, are refugees. Others, apparently, are scavengers. The principal difference between the two seems to be that the refugees survive on whatever they can find in abandoned houses and stores, while the scavengers survive by eating the refugees.

Whatever the disaster was, it hasn't just happened. The kid was born while the cities were burning and he's got to be about 10. This raises questions of plausibility. To begin with, if any humans managed to survive a nuclear war, it's likely that representatives of other species would, too. After all, cockroaches can absorb a heck of a lot more radiation than we can. And, as National Geographic reported last year on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the area around the destroyed reactor there has become a haven for wildlife. Evidently, McCarthy didn't spend much time researching his tale.

Be that as it may, given the premise, it's pretty obvious what the outcome will be. Sooner or later there won't be any food left in the empty houses and stores and warehouses. And sooner or later the scavengers are going to run out of people to eat.

So what's the appeal of this literary downer? There may have been a sense that McCarthy, a much-admired cult writer, was overdue for mainstream literary recognition, seven years after Hollywood came out with its version of his novel All the Pretty Horses.

More to the point, it suits the current fashion for the apocalyptic. Hardly a day goes by that some headline doesn't warn us about impending environmental disaster. Remember The Day After Tomorrow? Forget terrorists. Don'tcha know the real threat is people living in the suburbs driving around in SUVs? It was bad old humans just like you and me - not fanatics with bombs strapped to their bodies - who brought about the ruin described in The Road. You can't mistake the message of the book's last paragraph: It wouldn't have happened if those people had been ecologically righteous.

Of course, as D.H. Lawrence pointed out in the last book he wrote, Apocalypse, those who warn of apocalypse secretly crave it, the way puritans tend to be turned on by the very vices they so loudly denounce.

The Road is just the latest installment in the pornography of despair.

Contact books editor Frank Wilson at 215-854-5616 or fwilson@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/frankwilson. Visit his blog at http://booksinq.blogspot.com/.