Review: Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Passenger’ and ‘Stella Maris’

On the shelf

Two new novels by Cormac McCarthy

The passenger
Button: 400 pages, $30

Stella Maris
Button: 208 pages, $26
(6th of December)

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Bobby Western is a salvage diver, a former physics student who hangs out in bars with philosophical bullies and thieves. It’s 1980 in New Orleans when Bobby’s quiet but dangerous life takes a dangerous turn, sparking Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Passenger.

The Passenger is a brilliant book, a departure from McCarthy’s earlier works that still feels like a play. It’s set in the real world of the 20th century but is filled with the same elegiac language and jaw-dropping phrases of his 19th-century Border Trilogy and the apocalyptic future of The Road. This book, his best-known, won the Pulitzer Prize, was made into a film, and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club in 2007, propelling the reclusive author into the limelight. This is his first novel to be published since.

The story of a persecuted man on the run has McCarthy’s classic flair for language, plus Thomas Pynchon’s wit and paranoia, and last but not least a gripping story of theoretical physics. The Passenger is an amazing achievement: for McCarthy, at 89, to release a work of this scope and ambition is phenomenal. But it has a tragic flaw. Is it deadly?

One night, Bobby and his dive buddy Oiler are sent to a small plane sunken deep in the Gulf and find the black box is missing. So is one of the passengers; the rest are eerily strapped into their submerged seats. When the crashed plane and its dead occupants don’t make the news, Bobby begins to worry that they saw something they shouldn’t have seen. He’s mildly interested in finding out about the missing passenger, but mostly tries to keep a low profile.

Bobby moves into a rented room above a local bar where a number of residents have met an untimely end. Bobby doesn’t mind – handsome, intelligent, and with a secret stash of dough, he seems to ignore the concerns of his barfly cohort. Or maybe he likes to take risks: Before he came to New Orleans, he was a Formula 2 racer. He rarely reveals what worries him.

book cover for "The passenger," by Cormac McCarthy shows sunbeams through clouds over the ocean

It takes his friend “Long John” Sheddan to tell us clearly, “He’s in love with his sister.” This isn’t a spoiler; it’s only 30 pages, and Sheddan just lays it out – a slightly mythologized version of the sibling relationship that hangs over the rest of this novel and also Stella Maris, McCarthy’s companion novel, a sort of coda, due out on 6/14 of this volume consists entirely of conversations between her and her psychiatrist in a mental institution, and indeed she is first introduced in The Passenger. She is the corpse on the first page, sometimes called Alice and sometimes Alicia, and she occupies alternate chapters in italics.

Alicia is brilliant at math, ethereally beautiful, and usually in conversation with a troupe of third-rate vaudevillian hallucinations. Alicia is obsessed with death and her older brother, as in love with him as he has loved her since she was young. She’s so smart that her discussion of theoretical math leads Bobby to drop it for physics, but her romantic obsession with him drives her to suicide.

And we’ve come to the error. Maybe it doesn’t bother you like it bothers me. Does the core of this book have to be a love story between an older brother and his younger sister? Couldn’t a writer with McCarthy’s great imagination envision a grown, independent woman who could serve as an equally powerful lost love? I realize he’s been here before – his 1968 novel Outer Dark was about brother-sister incest – and of course any writer can turn anything they want into novels. But it’s 2022. An older brother in love with his younger sister? It’s not tragic; it’s scary.

If we can ignore that for a moment — and take a look at the cover, you might not — the book follows Bobby through New Orleans, where he dines and drinks at still-standing classics like Tujague’s and the Old Absinthe House. He deliberately ignores signals that something is wrong. A colleague dies in an underwater accident. His room is ransacked and his cat disappears. Two FBI-like guys show up looking for him frequently so common that they could have come from the Mafia or some more mysterious outfit instead.

McCarthy directs his considerable talent as a writer to two distinct forces: the mechanical and the theoretical. He handles the exquisite details of Bobby’s physical world – the sounds and feel of an oil rig in a storm, the touch and clatter of a cigarette machine in a bar, the step-by-step process of removing a bathroom cabinet or digging up and hauling away buried treasure. Meanwhile, Bobby chats with friends who are talking about time or men and women or Vietnam or failure, paragraphs and pages of memoirs that can be funny and moving and dirty and insightful. Sometimes it feels a bit like being trapped in a dorm hallway at 1am with a smart sophomore who’s really, really stoned.

covers of "Stella Maris," by Cormac McCarthy features a woman swimming in water

“You once said that a moment in time is a contradiction in terms, since there cannot be a still thing. That time could not be reduced to a brevity that defies its own definition,” Long John tells Bobby. “They also suggested that time might be incremental rather than linear. That the idea of ​​the infinitely divisible in the world was fraught with certain problems. While a discrete world, on the other hand, must raise the question of what binds them together.” There are countless passages like this, so much to puzzle for those who like to puzzle hard while reading their fiction.

As someone who has not studied higher mathematics or physics, I have not always gained a foothold in the theoretical debates here. (I came closer to understanding this type of math when I read Karen Olsson’s The Weil Conjectures, 2019.) In The Passenger, theoretical physics often appears as a series of handovers from one scientist to another, with entertaining framed biographies about who proved the last man wrong.

Much of the discussion of math and physics comes from Alicia’s sections, both in The Passenger and Stella Maris. your conversations with vaudeville Hallucinations are sadly retro – the main character, the Thalidomide Kid, uses his disabilities to laugh; Two characters dress up as blackface minstrels. The Kid — a name McCarthy also used for his protagonist in 1985’s “Blood Meridian” — began appearing in Alice’s puberty and serves as a staunch protector. His babble abounds with sloppiness and wit (“We’ve Got Lights and Chimeras”), and his turn from annoying and obnoxious to ultimately likable again indicates McCarthy’s abundant talent.

We see Alicia and Bobby asynchronously visiting their beloved grandmother in Tennessee. Her father, a scientist, worked on the Manhattan Project and met her mother, a local beauty from Tennessee, when she was working at the Y-12 electromagnetic separation facility, which produced enriched uranium for the first atomic bombs. The marriage didn’t last. And if you’re wondering if the father’s sins are haunted by the western siblings, you’ll warm up.

Bobby and Alicia’s stories move side by side in a doomed spiral. Alicia is dead on side 1, and Bobby’s choices narrow around him almost before he can save himself. Pushed from the comforts of New Orleans into an almost wild life on the streets, he is a journey in prose unlike any other. “In the morning he sat with his feet crossed and watched the sun come up. It stood red and swollen in the smoke like a matrix of molten iron being wobbly swung out of a blast furnace.” It is Cormac McCarthy writing as only Cormac McCarthy can.

With its cast of bullies, its American sins, its contemplation of quantum physics, its low life and high ideas, The Passenger is almost a perfect book. If only.

Kellogg is a former Times book editor. You can find her on Twitter @paperhouse. Review: Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Passenger’ and ‘Stella Maris’

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