By Bill Nevins
Cormac McCarthy at age 89 is a hard-edged, take-no-prisoners, literary rock star. He’s written enthralling fictional books about border scalp-hunters, post-apocalyptic survivors, lonely cowboys, troubled cops and cold-eyed narco-killers. He’s won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and a Pulitzer Prize, been elected to the American Philosophical Society, received lavish praise from critics and academics and had a string of best-sellers.
McCarthy’s novels have been made into the movies All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road, Child of God, Outer Dark and his play “The Sunset Limited” also became a film. He’s written several screenplays.
McCarthy lives in Santa Fe. While he is now one of our state’s most famous authors, he declines interviews and invitations to read and he shuns the company of other writers, preferring to hang out with scientists. He works with the Santa Fe Institute, a “multidisciplinary systems-research” think-tank, for which he published an essay on the human unconscious and the origin of language. At this stage in his long career, Cormac McCarthy declines interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself.
McCarthy’s writing contains eccentricities, including an arcane vocabulary and an aversion to apostrophes, quotation marks, semi-colons and commas. His writing has been compared favorably to Hemingway, Faulkner and the prose of the King James Bible. He is fluent in Spanish and his characters often speak in untranslated Spanish phrases and sentences.
Cormac McCarthy’s first two novels in sixteen years, The Passenger and its sequel, Stella Maris, have just been published by Knopf.
I’ve read The Passenger. Bobby Western, the co-protagonist with his deceased sister Alicia Western, are true desperados. Bobby and his dead sister are desperately and hopelessly in love—with one another. Both, as incestuous but unconsummated lovers, live outside the law where, as Bob Dylan says, “you must be honest.”
The book begins with a stark scene of Alicia’s frozen, red-sashed corpse with “cold, enameled eyes glinting blue” hanging from a tree in a wintry Wisconsin forest, discovered by an unfortunate hunter who “slogged” his rifle in the snow as he wordlessly contemplated the horror of his find on an “unspoken Christmas Day.” From there the reader is plunged backwards in time into the first of bed-ridden Alicia’s italicized pre-suicide dialogues with her hallucinatory “companion,” The Thalidomide Kid, a crude-but-friendly, flipper-handed dwarf who regales Alicia with corny jokes, bad puns and salacious references to her repressed sexual attraction towards her brother Bobby. The Kid seems to be trying to cajole and save Alicia from self-destruction, something Bobby himself fails to do.
Then the italics cease and in Chapter Two we seem to be engaged in a plot line set a
decade later in 1980, as Bobby Western, a former physics student and race-car driver now employed as a salvage diver (who, like Alicia’s imaginary Thalidomide Kid, sports flippers) off the MIssissippi coast, plunges into the mystery of how an apparently undamaged private passenger plane came to lie in deep water with nine dead passengers and crew members aboard but one unnamed passenger from the flight manifest missing.
Ostensibly, the novel then will follow Bobby’s efforts to solve this mystery. But not really. In fact, that mystery plot line is more or less a red herring, as we learn that the real mystery here involves just what kind of life Bobby Western is living, and why.
Agents—apparently of The Government—begin harassing and persecuting Bobby, though it is unclear why. Bobby suspects this has to do with his (and Alicia’s) late father’s involvement in the creation of The Bomb which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and still menaces our world to this day.
This novel is an oddly-structured book whose meaning lends itself to speculation.
The book’s settings, besides Alicia’s bedroom, include New Orleans, Tennessee and an island off the coast of Spain where Bobby meets and chats with odd-ball pals. The teetotal McCarthy is adept at describing the libations and the meandering but insightful bar-room conversations. Bobby’s pals include a charmingly sardonic roué and a kind-hearted trans woman and even his sister’s chimeric Thalidomide Kid.
Bobby largely listens. A reader is challenged to keep track of who is saying what because of McCarthy’s choice to not attribute lines of dialogue to their speakers. But one can sort it out.
The Passenger is one long, convoluted strange trip. Stella Maris, the second novel in this series, consists entirely of a psychiatrist’s interviews with the hallucinating and pre-suicidal Alicia Western, which make explicit her incestuous feelings towards Bobby.
I can’t say I understood it all, but I enjoyed the ride. Reminds me of some great poetry — from Milton to Eliot to Adrienne Rich — which I don’t fully grasp but I do like to read. Cormac McCarthy is a frustrating but fascinating writer. I think I will go back and read it again.
Photo of Cormac McCarthy by Beowulf Sheehan.