Thoughts on Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Passenger"

Written on November 26, 2022

The Passenger is Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, his first since 2006’s The Road. Having long been an admirer of McCarthy’s work (his 1985 western Blood Meridian probably ranks among my five or so favorite novels of my lifetime-to-date as a reader), I eagerly preordered a copy.

It’s a lesser work, if not the author’s “least”: sublunary McCarthy, firmly outside the pantheon — but on any given page there’s something interesting. McCarthy’s prose, increasingly hard-boiled in comparison to the more painterly, Faulknerian descriptions of his earlier books, illuminates what’s surely the most ironic wit of his career: “Her hair was like gossamer. He wasn’t sure what gossamer was. Her hair was like gossamer.” Or: “Vertebrae in his neck were always giving him trouble and every time he beat me his neck would ache for days. I told him it was probably a legacy from having been hanged in a previous incarnation but as you can imagine he failed to see the humor in that.” Very nice.

The novel continues motifs that McCarthy has explored for at least four decades now. In his books, our protagonist is often an outsider facing some sort of battle for survival against an insider or group of insiders. These insiders are some form of supermen, having unchallenged recourse to violence, as in the seemingly unkillable Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, or the mysterious drug cartels in the 2013 film The Counselor, for which McCarthy wrote the screenplay. The world is pitch darkness — “there is no god and we are his prophets”— as McCarthy wrote in The Road, and so the antagonist insiders must ultimately best our protagonists, as when the Judge appears to murder our protagonist The Kid in the last pages of Blood Meridian.

But in comparison to his earlier, canonical works, one problem here is that McCarthy’s plots have grown thinner. He does kick off an interesting starting gun: in 1980 our laconic protagonist Bobby Western is on a team of salvage divers based around New Orleans. They are hired to inspect a crashed airplane in the Gulf of Mexico. When they arrive, Western finds one of the bodies is missing, and soon he’s being harassed and threatened by shadowy government agents. The plot never really materializes; the missing passenger’s fate is unresolved. McCarthy is making a point with this inconclusiveness that resonates with his pet themes — our protagonist doesn’t know the story behind the missing passenger and his persecution, so there’s no reason we should either — and I don’t mean to imply that is fatal per se to the book. The passenger can be a MacGuffin to kick off the plot and explore the world of Western. And so we find out about halfway through that the plot is not what matters; we’re here for a character study. Sure, okay. But if the plot is deliberately enigmatic, then there must be some compensation for the reader in the book’s other formal elements (prose, dialogue, etc.), and the book never quite makes the required remunerations.

The main storyline is intercut with conversations between the protagonist’s dead sister and her hallucinations. These scenes are repetitive, and interminable — the equivalent of a long commercial break between the episodes of a comparatively more compelling serial. Or perhaps a little light torture. In the main plot, as with most McCarthy, the characters can wax philosophical, discussing the philosophy of death, the unknowability of the afterlife, etc. “Wherever you debark was the train’s destination all along,” one character says. If McCarthy, at 89 years old, has found some insight into the human character and the nearness-of-death, he fails to render it; these moments of earnest discussion of the life and afterlife border have only the profundity of a dorm-room argument: “Grief is the stuff of life. A life without grief is no life at all.” I will say, for books about spiritually malnourished brother-and-sister child prodigies, it’s an undeniable improvement on Franny and Zooey.

But there are moments when The Passenger truly illustrates McCarthy’s prodigious powers: when he steers the dialogue into more-concrete subjects that seemingly fascinate him — salvage diving, quantum mechanics, the atomic bomb, and the JFK assassination, for starters. These extended passages are the best in the book. The old man still has his fastball. And he is still capable of sentences and paragraphs like this: “The man’s a seducer of prelates and a suborner of the judiciary. He’s an habitual mailcandler and a practicing gelignitionary, a mathematical platonist and a molester of domestic yardfowl. Principally of the dominecker persuasion. A chickenfucker, not to put too fine a point on it.” Some of these words may require a dictionary and some of these words will not appear there at all.

Overall, two threads are pulling at each other throughout the novel: the self-serious psychological drama and the shaggy-dog story where Western navigates the southern United States and has humorous conversations with a cast of (mostly indistinguishable) supporting characters. If McCarthy had leaned fully into the latter, he might have written a great picaresque, but instead we end up with something muddier. Recommended only for fans of McCarthy who have nonzero tolerance for punishment.