The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy 2022
McCarthy is considered by many to be one of America’s greatest writers by critics including one of my favorites, Harold Bloom, and this, his first book 16 years, has been much awaited.
I’ve read several of McCarthy’s books, most recently the Pulitzer Prize winning ‘The Road’, and have usually been awed by his writerly skills while being unsettled by the violence and cruelty in his plots. This book is no exception. The writing is spectacular, filled with McCarthy’s creative spirit in using obscure words and his quirky style which omits apostrophes in contractions, e.g. werent, and quotation marks in dialogue. The writing warrants close reading but the whirlwind pace of the plot necessitated a conscious effort to slow down and savor his alliterative sentences like this one: “God’s own mudlark trudging cloaked and muttering the barren salvage of some nameless desolation where the cold sidereal sea breaks and seethes and the storms howl in from our of that black and heaving alcahest.” The repeated ‘s’ evokes the sea and the unusual words (‘alcahest’ was the universal solvent used in Renaissance alchemy.) create a dream-like state which is perfect for the bizarre and strange story he tells.
McCarthy employs another stylistic device by alternating chapters which are printed in the usual font with those that are italicized. The latter chapters are about Alicia, the main character’s schizophrenic, mathematical genius sister and convey the inner conversations between her and her demons, most often the Thalidomide Kid. These creations of Alicia’s mind, from a ventriloquist’s dummy to a black-face tap dancing duo, contrast with chapters in standard font about Bobby Western that form the backbone of the plot.
I’m not even sure whether the plot bears summarizing. In another McCarthy technique of double meaning, the title refers to a passenger on a private jet which crashes into the Gulf off the Mississippi coast in 1981. Bobby Western is a salvage diver, a career he took up after dropping out of physics grad school and Formula 2 race car driving in Europe. He and his buddy, Oiler investigate the plane which is sitting on the sea bottom. The plane appears to be in perfect condition with seven passengers unscathed and belted into their seats, but the pilot is floating free in the cockpit, the voice recorder is missing, and one of the original 8 passengers on the manifest is missing. This event, never made clear in the book, dogs Bobby over the next months as the FBI and IRS chase and harass him. All the time, Bobby is grieving his sister who committed suicide and, who he deeply loved and may even have had an incestuous relationship with.
The plot provides a scaffolding for Bobby’s endless musings on death, meaning, suffering, and relationships, often in conversation with dead friends. Along the way, we are treated to some deep mathematics courtesy of Alicia’s genius, the fraught history of the atomic bomb which Bobby’s father helped develop (and, oh by the way, the father’s papers have also been stolen from their Tennessee home and from Princeton), and a detailed analysis of why JFK had been assassinated by the Mafia, not Lee Harvey Oswald. It’s a magnificent ride, often difficult to follow, but probably a masterpiece.
Moving on now to the second part of this two volume work, Stella Maris in which Alicia’s relationship with her psychiatrist is the focus of the novel.