I’ve long avoided the work of Cormac McCarthy because, as most will say, it’s dark. Take the description of his 1985 novel Blood Meridian as an example: “An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion,” it follows a 14-year-old boy in a “nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.” In 2006, however, when McCarthy published his post-apocalyptic novel The Road, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I felt I couldn’t not read it given that honor. Well, I loved it. Still, it felt like enough. At least I’d read one.
This week, 16 years since The Road, McCarthy published his newest novel The Passenger to great fanfare. “A worldwide literary event” is written in bold letters across the back of the advanced reading copy I received more than a month ago. (The publicist requested I refrain from writing about the novel until the release date.) It’s the story of a salvage diver based in New Orleans who’s burdened with a yearning love for his dead sister, anxious concerning the ocean’s dark depths, a former race car driver, a physics genius, and the victim of a government conspiracy he can’t fathom. I thought, I have to read this one, too.
Now I’m hooked on McCarthy. (May as well blurt it out.) The Passenger is a powerful literary work, and by that I mean it’s a complex, daunting, and profoundly intellectual story that’s riveting for being all that, and more. The intrigue it opens with involves protagonist Bobby Western and his fellow salvage diver Oiler called out in the middle of the night (three seventeen in the morning) to inspect a jet aircraft that’s submerged in the Gulf of Mexico. They find seven dead passengers and two dead pilots. The data box is missing. It appears someone has been inside the cabin before them, but there’s no evidence of possible entry. It’s a creepy situation. Something’s weirdly off. Where’s the news media? Why only them, and one boat from the Coast Guard lurking in the background?
The tension is casual, no heart-racing fear. Even when two men with badges are waiting for Western outside his apartment. Perhaps it’s because this 37-year-old enigmatic man moves through unsettling situations with calm indifference and self-sufficient authority. He invites the men with badges inside, offers them tea (they refuse). He can tell they’ve gone through his apartment. (“The bed folded up into the wall but he always left it down.”) They interrogate him about the underwater jet and a missing passenger. Western tells them there were only seven, not eight passengers. Still, they insist. His apartment is searched again another day, so Western packs up and rents a room above a New Orleans bar. That space, too, is searched. Western has no idea who’s watching him or what they want from him. A fact about his life that may or may not be related: Western’s father helped build the nuclear bomb with Oppenheimer.
The drama expands with hovering questions of cosmic unknowns, much of that having to do with Western’s younger sister, Alice, a schizophrenic mathematical genius. It’s no spoiler to tell you she committed suicide ten years ago. It’s given on the first page of the novel, when a hunter finds her hanging from a tree on a snowy Christmas day in a white dress tied with a red sash. Western remains “broken on the wheel of devotion.” He’s in love with her, always has been, always will be. It’s common knowledge among his friends, to whom or anyone else he firmly says “no” before they even ask the ugly question.
Throughout the novel, McCarthy intersperses Western’s narrative with italicized chapters that are conversational hallucinations between Alice and a djinn (a.k.a. jinn) called The Kid. To make the point that The Kid is inside Alice’s mind, after she receives electroshock therapy, his face is black with soot, the hairs on his head are singed, his cloak is smoking. Their dialogues are both intoxicating and bewildering, as they tease and challenge each other through concepts on human existence and purpose. I’m not comfortable attempting to summarize or quantify what’s going on. I’m not sure one can, but by sharing comments from the djinn, you’ll get a sense of it. Here’s one that, for me, became unforgettable.
But above all and lastly the world does not know that you are here. You think that you understand this. But you dont [sic]. Not in your heart you dont. If you did you would be terrified. And you’re not. Not yet. And now, good night.
The Kid has flippers for hands (“sort of like a seal”) and a small, scarred head. One time, and one time only, he speaks to Western strolling on a beach at midnight. (Yes, it’s a visit to Western from his dead sister’s psyche. Strange but utterly believable.) Western asks The Kid, “What did she know?”
She knew that in the end you really cant [sic] know. You cant get hold of the world. You can only draw a picture. Whether it’s a bull on the wall of a cave or a partial differential equation it’s all the same thing.
Western shows up to work on an oil rig in Pensacola where he’s isolated by a storm, haunted by someone who might also be on the rig but never shows himself. He hides his sister’s 37 letters, of which he’s read all but the last one, to keep them safe from the watchers. He consults with a private investigator, who urges him to change his identity. He hides for a while in Arizona, then Idaho. McCarthy has so perfectly knitted this story with dark intrigue and visionary intelligence that when it comes to the book’s uncertain conclusion, it feels acceptable. Perhaps this is due to Western’s admirable stoic reserve given the state of abeyance he’s fated to live. As Rilke famously advised in Letters to a Young Poet, one must live the questions.
But then, the last page of The Passenger is not the finale. There’s a second book, Stella Maris, set to release December 6, continuing the story. From the novel’s description: “Alicia Western, twenty years old, with forty thousand dollars in a plastic bag, admits herself to the hospital. …Told entirely through the transcripts of Alicia’s psychiatric sessions, Stella Maris is a searching, rigorous, intellectually challenging coda to The Passenger, a philosophical inquiry that questions our notions of God, truth, and existence.”
One more character’s comment I’ll end with, not by the hallucination with flippers, but a man who knew Alice (Alicia) in the psychiatric facility. He’s speaking to Western, who visits Stella Maris. (He “just wanted to see the place. A last time.”) It’s part of a longer sentence, but it’s this, I believe, that matters.
Everyone is born with the faculty to see the miraculous. You have to choose not to.