In 2006, Cormac McCarthy wrote a bleak and painful story about a man and his son surviving in an apocalyptical America as they travel, documenting what they experienced. The Road would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction gaining yet another accolade for an author who had already cemented himself as the father of modern westerns. Fast forward to 2022 and the 90-year-old Rhode Island native would release his first novel since then, 16 years later.
I picked up a copy of The Passenger about three days after it was released and I have to say, it was nothing that I expected.
Investigating a plane crash in a Mississippi river. Bobby Western’s gig as a salvage diver puts him in a position to see if the crash yielded any survivors, finding none but noting a couple of missing items, he and his crew leave the submerged tomb going about their lives. This, unfortunately, does not seem to be the end of the story for Bobby as a pair of uniformed ‘feds’ visit him at his home. Inquiring about the dive and more importantly, the fact of a missing passenger on board.
In one of the most McCarthy ways, The Passenger sets up a plot that has nothing to do with the story. On the face, the book seems to be about the mystery of a plane crash that plagues a salvage diver but in fact, it has little to do with that. I would go as far as to say that the only reason the plane crash is even in the book is to show that Bobby Western is a salvage diver and little else. This is something I’ve grown to appreciate about McCarthy but it is something I know a lot of people dislike, my stepmother included.
The best example I can think of where McCarthy does a similar tacit of storytelling is in No Country For Old Men. A quick synopsis of that book follows a Sheriff, Bell somewhere in Texas, a wielder named Moss who finds a bunch of heroin and money (the latter of which he takes), and a hitman Chigurh who is tasked with getting the money back. The narration of this story mostly follows Moss as he is trying to pull a fast one on Chigurh, keep the money and make a new life for himself and his wife however he is killed at a motel though it is unclear who killed him.
Later on, Chigurh would find himself in a car accident in which he limped away from never being heard from again while the book ends on Bell’s outro, mostly him reflecting on his past sins and the struggles of being a Sheriff. It’s with this a lot of frustration exists as two major players of the book seem to just be cut out like paper-mache. Though it was never their story, to begin with. No Country For Old Men is Bell’s story, from start to finish, it was never Moss’s or Chigurh’s.
The Passenger Is Bobby Western’s story, not the passenger or lack thereof. More specifically The Passenger is the story of Bobby Western coming to terms with and struggling in a world 10 years after his genius sister, Alicia, killed herself. A sister whom he loved.
And yeah I mean LOVED, McCarthy pulled an incest story on us.
Toiling with schizophrenia the book switch narratives between Alicia’s troubled mind, often rambling from her self-made creation, ‘The Kid’. Who I think is safe to assume is a homage to the Blood Meridian character of the same name. It is in these passages we see into Bobby’s beloved sister’s life, what she experienced and her struggles before the story jump back to Bobby and whatever ailments are in his life.
From there it is just 380 pages of us seeing a man so defeated and haunted by his past that apathetic doesn’t even begin to describe his crushed spirit. Oh yeah, it also doesn’t help that their father was Oppenheimer and created the A-bomb so they have that shadow over them as well.
Begin the first novel in over a decade to come from McCarthy I can say two things right away. One it isn’t his best work, two, it demands to be read. The Passenger is every bit of a beautiful book, it is insightful, mournful, hilarious, and often crude. It displays a man haunted by a lost love as he does everything in his power just to get by in a world that seems to want nothing but to destroy him. All while written in McCarthy’s enchanting prose sprinkled with charming facts about airplanes and auto racing.
Paired with a sister novel that is set to be released December 6th, Stella Maris. Told through the eyes of Bobby’s sister, Alicia. McCarthy has set the stage for a very daring and unique pairing that I think will resonate with readers for years to come.
The short of it is this. I loved the book, my only real criticism is the length. Often I found myself slugging through some of the parts and being nearly 400 pages it can be a lot to overcome. As I said this is by no means his best work but given the context of how different it is compared to most of his novels, the story he is trying to tell with it and the sheer complexity of the relationships he tries to paint put its near the top of my favorites coming out of this year.
I think as time goes on and I reflect, read others’ or get around to re-reading it my emotions will remain muddled. It’s an enigmatic book, more so than any of his other novels and that alone makes it difficult to pin down but for now, that is where I leave it. As always, thanks for the read!