Down the stretch of “The Passenger,” the first of Cormac McCarthy’s two characteristically bleak and daunting new novels, the besieged hero Bobby finds himself talking to a hallucination that isn’t even his. The Kid, a balding, wise-cracking dwarf with flippers for hands, is a product of Alicia’s—Bobby’s sister’s—psychosis. But here he is with Bobby, strolling along a Mississippi beach, talking about this and that as the author sets the scene: “Out at sea the ragged wire filaments of lightning stood briefly and then again along the darkening rim of the world.”
It’s one of those sentences beautiful enough to stop you in your tracks, its structural perfection, vivid imagery, and apocalyptic foreboding (“the darkening rim of the world”) a perfect encapsulation of what makes McCarthy, well, McCarthy. Never for the faint of heart, the writer who has wrung hard, often bloody poetry from the Western (the Border Trilogy) and the end of the world (“The Road”) has never been less compromising, or more challenging. Now 89, he’s not going gentle into that good night with “The Passenger” or its companion volume, “Stella Maris” (the name of a mental hospital, not a character).
In many ways Bobby Western is a typical McCarthy protagonist: taciturn, isolated, haunted by an unforgiving past. His physicist father worked on the research that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, enlisting his talents for death. Bobby’s little sister, Alicia, who also happens to be the love of his life, is a mathematical genius who appears to be schizophrenic; no tests have confirmed her condition, but The Kid, along with an assortment of other hallucinations she calls the “horts” (short for cohorts), is a frequent visitor. They are a tortured family, dwelling in the sort of existential gloaming that McCarthy readers will recognize.
The year is 1980. Bobby, a former racecar driver, is now a salvage diver, a profession that allows him to submerge himself in darkness. He passes his days living in New Orleans, befriending the local eccentrics, drinking a little but never too much. Near the beginning of “The Passenger,” Bobby goes on a dive to check out a sunken passenger plane that appears to be missing a passenger. Soon one of his colleagues has turned up dead, and all of Bobby’s assets have been seized by the US government. Back at the family home, in Tennessee, his father’s papers are stolen.
What’s going on? Don’t look for easy answers. Actually, don’t look for any answers. This isn’t the kind of conspiracy that leads to a conclusion. It’s more an amorphous manifestation of a hostile universe. Many pages of “The Passenger” are devoted to considerations of existence, its futility, and the futility of even trying to figure it out. Several pages are also given to intricacies of quantum mechanics; it’ll be up to the reader to check McCarthy’s work. “The Passenger” is a stubborn novel that dares you to like it, written with a verve and mastery of language that make it hard not to.
“The Passenger” alternates between Bobby chapters and Alicia chapters; the latter are italicized and consist of her encounters with The Kid – short for The Thalidomide Kid, due to his birth defects – and the horts, whose numbers include members of a minstrel show, complete with vaudevillian jokes. Alicia doesn’t particularly like The Kid, who is, of course, a part of her psyche, but she tolerates him. The Kid, for his part, addresses Alicia as an insult comic might (“I sense the quality of the repartee declining. What sort of meds have they got you on, Luscious?”). One of the best things about McCarthy is his willingness to interrupt the doom with a rimshot, as in this quip from one of Bobby’s bar buddies: “The highballs are on me. As the giraffe said to the bartender.”
In contrast to the weight of “The Passenger,” the slim “Stella Maris,” which reads like a two-character play without stage directions, can be read in one determined sitting. The book comprises a series of conversations between Alicia and her doctor at the book’s eponymous hospital. Here we have the odd sensation of McCarthy’s voice coming out of a damaged, not-terribly-optimistic teenage girl’s mouth. “That there is little joy in the world is not just a view of things. Every benevolence is suspect.” Or: “The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy.” Geez. As The Kid might say, lighten up, Toots. Then again, Alicia’s father did help usher in the age of mass annihilation.
“Stella Maris” reads more like an expansion of ideas explored in “The Passenger” than a book in and of itself. But because this is McCarthy, whose dialogue can be as transcendent as his descriptions, it’s still a welcome postscript.
If these books end up being McCarthy’s epitaph, we can say he went out with a majestic shudder in keeping with his best work. They echo not just his own greatest hits but a pantheon of American literature: the baroque language and sentence structure of Faulkner; the terse, laconic dialogue of Hemingway; even the paranoid poetry of DeLillo (a long exchange in “The Passenger” pokes holes in the official story of the JFK assassination). McCarthy’s world remains no country for resolution, except for the inevitable one that concludes six feet under. In the meantime, the horizon is obscured by the darkening rim of the world.
By Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 400 pages, $30
By Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 208 pages, $26
Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University