An undisclosed cataclysmic event has obliterated all but a few scattered forms of life on Earth. These are largely human predators, who carve a brutal, inhuman existence from the remnants of the old world. A few dogs, mere sacks of bones, remain in the wasted world, but other creatures—birds, insects, and fish—have disappeared entirely. There are scant remnants of fungi, but the landscape for the most part is a vast, cold ruin of dust and ash.
About ten years after the cataclysm, a man and his son journey toward the eastern coast, ostensibly in an attempt to escape the oncoming Appalachian winter. The man’s wife— and the boy’s mother—committed suicide soon after the boy’s birth. Only one season, nuclear winter, persists in this postapocalyptic world, and the man and the boy continually struggle against varying intensities of bitter cold throughout their trek.
Rain and snow mix with ash and toxic particulates that permanently shroud the sky; the biosphere has changed, and the few remaining people wear masks to reduce the torments of the diseased air they must breathe. Towns, cities, and all manner of human-made structures remain only as heaps of cinders and ashes.
The earth’s devastation occurred quickly; the man recalls that the clocks stopped at 1:17 a.m. With the end of human civilization came the end of the earth’s resources. The world is now filled with blood cults and marauders, who exist among the corpses and waste. Most remaining humans are members of roving bands of cannibals, and all manner of goodness and grace have ostensibly come an end.
Although the story follows the father and son as they travel the road, the man’s recollections and dream visions are interspersed throughout the narrative. He dreams of an uncle and of his dead wife, and he wonders what place these images have in this bleak and cold world of abominations beyond human imaginings. Humans in this world are so desperate that they procreate to survive: In one scene, the father and son happen upon a charred human infant on a spit.
The man has a gun with two bullets, and he instructs his son that, if need be, the boy must use a bullet on himself. The man is protector, nurturer, and caregiver to his son. Indeed, he has survived solely for the boy’s sake. The man shepherds and instructs his son because he knows that within the boy lies the possibility of human goodness, but the man is dying, and along the journey he often coughs up blood.
The road is dangerous, and the boy and the man walk, half-starved, pushing an old shopping cart filled with the few bits of food, tools, and clothing they possess. They live in constant peril of encountering other survivors who literally and metaphorically evince the unnatural landscape. The father and son refer to themselves as the “good guys,” and they talk often about a fire that they carry within. The words are like mantras, and the father reminds the boy of them several times after encounters with the remnants of cannibalistic campers along the road. The father also tells the boy that good guys are lucky, and this often proves to be the case: On the road, the two chance upon morel mushrooms, rotten apples, an unopened can of soda, drops of gasoline or water that they siphon, and an undiscovered underground bunker full of boxes of food and drink.
Several times, the boy ceases to speak for a while as a result of the horrors he witnesses. Early in the novel, the two encounter a dazed man who has been struck by lightning. Later, they meet another old man who says his name is Ely and who talks to the father about the absence of God. The boy is much friendlier toward the old man than is his father. The boy, and all that he may represent, may be the only hope in this chaotic new world.
The man begins to cough more blood. The two travelers set up camp for the last time, and the father tells his son that he must go on alone. The following day, the boy wakens to find his father dead. He sits by the body of his dead father until a man appears on the road. Frightened at first, the boy trusts that the man is a good guy and so goes with him. There are others with the man, a woman and at least two children, and the woman talks to the boy about God. The final lines of the novel speak of brook trout in streams that once were.