The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The Passenger is the first novel from Cormac McCarthy – one of America’s finest writers – in sixteen years.  His previous novel The Road was published in 2006 and was a post-apocalyptic novel in which an unidentified cataclysmic event destroyed civilization.  The Road won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.  This latest novel is published alongside a companion novel Stella Maris, and, while each can be read as a stand-alone novel, there are links between the two and either offers insights into the other.

The Passenger is a substantial book – both in its length [383 pages] and its scope.  In alternate chapters, the author narrates the day-to-day activities of brother and sister – Robert and Alicia Western.  The novel begins with the chilling sentence – This then would be Chicago in the winter of the last year of her life [5].  It refers to Alicia a highly intelligent young woman tormented by voices in her head and to which she has ascribed names and shapes and with whom she has lengthy conversations.  These voices which first appeared when Alicia began puberty in 1963 – She woke early in the morning on that cold day and found them assembled at the foot of her bed [49].  

Written in italics, Alicia’s chapters describe the never-ending torment of schizophrenia and the ever-present voices and their unwelcome appearance – a pale horde of familiars.  Alicia’s future is a bleak one.  As the room dims and the sound of voices fades you understand that the world and all in it will soon cease to be [298].

In his turn, Robert is haunted by the ghost of his dead father – one of the inventors of the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima – his illicit love for his sister and his inadvertent involvement in a conspiracy beyond his comprehension.

Robert is a deep-sea salvager called to examine a private jet which has crashed into ocean off New Orleans.  In the jet now beneath forty feet of water, Western finds nine passengers still in their seats where there should be ten – and the pilot’s flight bag is missing.  Seeking for an explanation where none is immediately available, Western is told presciently by another of the salvage crew – My desire to remain totally ignorant about shit that will only get me in trouble is both deep and abiding [23].

Western spends his time in the bars and restaurants of New Orleans where he associates with characters from the darkest corners of the city – such as Long John, Darling Dave, Brat and Count Seals whose names alone suggest nefarious lives and deeds.  His conversations with them range over both philosophical and scientific matters as they attempt to access the true nature of the world.

Western is unable to remain ignorant about the missing passenger and his mere presence at the plane’s crash site brings the unwanted attentions of powerful authority figures who pursue him across the United States.  His future is bleak as those figures invade every aspect of his life and freeze his bank account thus driving him to destitution.  He drifts across the country pursued by the authorities finally moving to Ibiza where he spends his days largely in idleness.  The novel concludes with his certainty that, when he dies, it will be the face of his sister that he will take with him into eternity.

With echoes of Ernest Hemingway, a master of spare and uncompromising writing, McCarthy explores the inner worlds of Robert Western and his troubled sister Alicia.  Using simple declarative sentences and largely eschewing punctuation – as did Hemingway before him – McCarthy creates a sense of immediacy which drives the narrative forward.  His use of ‘and’ rather than commas slow down the rhythm of the prose to deliver solemnity; as in – He got up and got his jacket and put it on over his T-shirt and stood looking out the window [177].

Cormac McCarthy has crafted a masterful novel which at least one critic has described as ‘his masterpiece’.  It may well be so as its scope and breadth are breathtaking as is his economy in writing.  Not a word is wasted and he seemingly has no use for adjectives and adverbs.  This is a book to be savoured.

The Passenger

[2022]

by Cormac McCarthy

Picador

ISBN 978 033045 742 2

$45.00 [hardback]; 383pp

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