After a break of 16 years (since 2006’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Road), award winning author Cormac McCarthy returns with a pair of connected novels. The first of these is The Passenger – centring on salvage diver Bobby Western. McCarthy sets the scene with a suicide, an event that is central to Bobby’s life. This is followed by the name of drop of the companion novel Stella Maris (still to come) and an introduction to Western’s sister Alicia and her bizarre collection of imaginary characters who will recur throughout the book.
The main plot, if it can even be called that, involves Western uncovering a mystery in the waters off New Orleans. A sunken plane, completely intact and yet the black box and the pilots bag are missing as, it seems, is one of the passengers. This discovery puts Western in the crosshairs of shadowy “authorities” and eventually on the run. But readers should not expect the mystery box to ever be opened. In fact, McCarthy loses interest in the plane and its secrets fairly early on, focussing instead on Western’s colourful collection of friends and acquaintances and his ongoing dealing with implacable government forces.
What The Passenger becomes then is a series of unrelated vignettes and conversations that range from the horrors of the Vietnam War, to the challenges of coming out to your parents as transgender, to river salvage operations, to deep discussions on quantum physics to the Kennedy assassination. It is all fascinating but seemingly random and not particularly resonant. The only anchor is Western’s story, but that story does not really go anywhere, except to see Western slowly alienated from his home and his country.
This is not the Cormac McCarthy of the westerns or the post-apocalypse or the hitman thriller. This is McCarthy exploring new territory and new ideas. And it is all delivered in McCarthy’s distinct, spare but evocative style where dialogue blends seamlessly with description. Passages like this one as Western walks through New Orleans:
He walked back through the Quarter. Past Jackson Square. The Cabildo. The rich moss and cellar smell of the city on the night air. A cold and skullcoloured moon driving through skeins of cloud beyond the roofslates. The tiles and chimneypots. A ship’s horn on the river. The streetlamps stood in globes of vapour and the buildings were dark and sweating. At times the city seemed older than Nineveh.
So perhaps it matters less that the narrative itself is aimless and at times a little incoherent if the constituent parts are, for the most part, beautifully rendered and observed and the characters are fascinating. While this does make The Passenger slightly less than the sum of its parts, many of those parts are exquisite, so clearly delivered by a master of the language who is clearly still exploring and reaching for something new, that for many readers that will be enough.