Cormac McCarthy’s most memorable characters to date are the ones who operate beyond traditional good-versus-evil morality. The Judge in Blood Meridian comes to mind, of course, and you can bet your lucky quarter that Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men does as well. We can now count Alicia Western among their illustrious company, even if—especially if—her violence is directed inward instead. “If the world itself is a horror,” she says, “then there is nothing to fix and the only thing you could be protected from would be the contemplation of it.”
In these magnificent, conjoined novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, McCarthy has taken the oldest story in the world—humankind’s search for meaning in a world seemingly devoid of God—and makes it feel fresh and personal to each and every one of us. There exist unseen powers that exert influence on every aspect of our lives. Here, those forces are embodied not by a solitary amoral villain as much as in some anonymous authority that’s terrifying in its systemic mundanity.
The Passenger begins with a brief prelude on Christmas Day in which a hunter makes a gruesome discovery in the snow. Then, the first chapter and most of the subsequent ones open with sections set during the last year of Alicia’s life. She’s suffering from some form of mental illness, perhaps schizophrenia, and is often visited by interlocutors, most often one known as The Thalidomide Kid who has seal-like flippers instead of hands, dons a kimono, and describes himself as an “ectromelic hallucination.” (You might recall that in the late 1950s, a scandal erupted when that medication was prescribed as a sedative but caused thousands of children to be born with deformities of the arms and legs. I had to look it up.) Those dizzying italicized sections form one of two storylines.
The other plot begins in 1980 in Louisiana and features Alicia’s older brother Bobby. Yes, the author of The Border Trilogy has created not one, but two protagonists named Western. Go figure. Early on in The Passenger, McCarthy makes it clear that atrocity is always right around the corner. First, there are the burning kittens that spread a fire around an apartment, and the observation that “the selfimmolatory tendencies of cats does seem to be a known factor in the feline equation.” Then there’s a recollection of the Vietnam War, in which a former soldier describes blowing up wild elephants with rockets fired from a gunship: “They’d just fucking explode,” he recalls. Bad things can happen at any moment to even the most innocent among us.
Bobby is a salvage diver who’s afraid of the briny depths and remains in love with Alicia, who has now been dead for ten years. Hired to search for a downed private jet in a waterway near New Orleans, he discovers that the pilot’s briefcase has gone missing, as has the black box. Also, only nine of the ten passengers can be accounted for. Shortly after he returns to shore, two mysterious men dressed like missionaries visit his apartment to interrogate him. They seem to believe that Bobby has stolen the items missing from the wreck. Then, the same men, or perhaps different ones—we don’t know—return to frighten his cat and root through his few possessions, at which point Bobby is forced to flee his home and his real adventures begin.
By adventures, I mean he hangs out at Galatoire’s and the Napoleon House and enjoys weighty conversations with old friends. Only Cormac McCarthy could make a detailed excursus on theoretical physics so genuinely thrilling. A lengthy analysis of the Kennedy assassination, of all things, shook me to my core; it reminds Bobby that all authority as he knows it—and as we know it—is unknowable. An old acquaintance named John Shedden gets many of the novel’s best lines, especially in a monologue about someone farting in a restaurant. One notion of his might serve the book’s guiding principle: “Without malefactors the world of the righteous is robbed of all meaning.”
While living in Louisiana for two years, I came to agree with the old saw that New Orleans is both the most European city in the United States and also the most African. And yet that town’s unique tensions, as described so eloquently in, for example, Bob Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors and Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, are more internalized here. In addition to having some adversaries on his tail, Bobby carries the weight of his father’s work on the Manhattan Project, and, of course, his sister’s death.
With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes conspicuous that the Westerns’s father’s wartime papers had been stolen and the grandmother’s house robbed as well, as is the room he rented above a bar. When the IRS cuts off Bobby’s access to his bank account and seizes his Maserati, he comes to recognize the long reach of the faceless forces aligned against him. Newly destitute and perhaps under threat of incarceration, or worse, he goes to live in a remote, bayside shack. There, he’s visited by none other than The Kid: “He was much as she’d described him. The hairless skull corraded with the scars perhaps come by at his unimaginable creation. The funny oarlike shoes he wore. His seal’s flippers splayed on the arms of the chair.” That can’t be a good sign about his own mental well-being.
McCarthy controls tides that ebb from long passages of pure dialogue to some of the most lyrical and beautiful prose I’ve enjoyed in years. The effect is stunning. I found myself reading long sections aloud to better hear the assonances: “The straw roof hissing in the bellshaped dark above him and his shadow on the roughtrowled wall. Like those scholars of old in their cold stone rooms toiling at their scrolls.” These are pages to linger over.
When some of Bobby’s friends end up dead, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, he begins to research finding a new identity. First, though, he pays another visit to the Wisconsin asylum where his sister spent her final days. The second of these two conjoined novels, Stella Maris, is the name of that institution. In it, we gain further access to Alicia’s thinking through the Plato-like dialogues with her shrink. A Ph.D. candidate in mathematics, she’s the most fascinating character here and not only because we know she’s doomed. As we all are. “The spiritual nature of reality has been the principle preoccupation of mankind since forever,” she says, “and it’s not going anytime soon.” I’m not sure how Stella Maris would stand alone without reading The Passenger first, but it certainly does shine new and welcome floodlights on Bobby and their family history.
With both Stella Maris and The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy transports us to a world quite a bit like our own, where his characters, like each of us, feel the immense weight of absence—be it love or God or something even more ephemeral. The Passenger in particular is a masterpiece; it reminds us that McCarthy is both one of the most extraordinary prose stylists working in the English language and also our greatest teller of stories about not knowing.