To me, The Road is a sharply effective portrayal of desolation and hopelessness.
McCarthy throws you in a wasted world of emptiness without any context or reference point, and makes sure that every bit of his narrative is uncompromisingly crude: landscapes are nothing but dust, ashes, and dirt; characters and their dialogues are repetitive, bare, pointless; actual events and backstories are only available through faint glimpses, memories, which are rare and so intermingled with visions and nightmares that they can sometimes be more confusing than anything else for the reader. Even worse: the book is fairly short, and abundant with descriptions of everyday actions that feel mechanical and devoid of any purpose. Take for example:
"He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy came and took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again. Then he handed the bottle back and the man drank and screwed the cap back on and rummaged through the pack. The ate a can of white beans, passing it between them, and he threw the empty tin into the woods. Then they set out down the road again."
I agree with other (critical) reviews that this piece is as elegant as a laundry list. But McCarthy is no Hemingway: the point is not that of having a prose that’s simple, precise, straightforward. The point (at least in my opinion) is rather that of conveying emptiness, hopelessness, and weariness. The man’s (and the narrator’s) reality is so empty and hostile, that words themselves are something increasingly fragile and alien; their referents are remnants of a past long gone and unreachable. And you, the reader, can’t help but feel estranged and alienated as well. Using the narrator’s own words:
“The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the name of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.”
This is what makes The Road so poignant to me. And, interestingly enough, I tend to agree with critical reviews and disagree with enthusiastic ones. Maybe I repeat myself too much, but I find the idea (or, worse, the expectation) that books are there to please the reader, to make them comfortable, extremely naive. Yes, the Road is narratively bare and repetitive; yes, characters are flat, dull, with no personality (heck, they don’t even have names!) and there is no plot, no revelation, no hidden meaning to discover, no hope, no message.
This is my take: if you see a grand message of hope in this book, a "light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel" finale, or some kind of celebration of the indomitable spirit of humanity, then you are probably being delusional. Instead, if you finish the book with some sort of a bitter taste in your mouth, slightly disturbed, even bored, and you feel a strange urge of brushing the dirt off your body, I’d say that McCarthy did a good job.