Zachary Calhoun | The Unexpected Empathy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger | A Review Essay
PART ONE of a two-part review essay by Flyway Book Review Editor, Zachary Calhoun, featuring Cormac McCarthy’s two new interconnected novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris. PART TWO will appear after the publication of Stella Maris in December of 2022.
◊ ◊ ◊
Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. 383 pages.
In Cormac McCarthy’s new novel—his first since The Road, published in 2006—two siblings are in love. The prose that orates their story is filled with prophetic warnings of the apocalypse.
Longtime readers of his work will know that McCarthy has traveled this road before. His 1968 novel Outer Dark followed a woman who gave birth to her brother’s child, in a story filled with prophetic dreams and warnings about the apocalyptic decline of the world to come.
Biographically, this similarity isn’t surprising. Although McCarthy currently writes among scientists at the Santa Fe Institute—a think tank for complex systems theory in Santa Fe, New Mexico—he wrote 1968’s Outer Dark in Asheville, New Orleans, Knoxville, and Ibiza. As it happens, New Orleans, Knoxville, and Ibiza are also primary settings in The Passenger, where McCarthy returns to the bleakness of Outer Dark, seemingly in pursuit of a new moral compass and ending for the Southern incest novel of his youth. He told a Santa Fe Institute scholar that he has been working on The Passenger since the 1970s. In terms of its inception—the moment this story and its settings entered his mind—The Passenger very well could be his immediate follow-up to Outer Dark, if inflected by McCarthy’s recent interest in the history of subatomic science.
The Passenger settles mainly around New Orleans. Its protagonist, Bobby Western, is deeply afraid of the watery depths, so naturally he works as a salvage diver. Evoking the rollicking attitude of 1979’s Suttree, Western passes his free time in restaurants and bars, speaking to oddball characters with names like Oiler, Borman, and Sheddan. They are just as likely to speak about quantum mechanics or the Kennedy assassination as they are to speculate (curtly and crudely) on Western’s showering habits. Except for several segues in forests, oil rigs, or abroad, most of the novel is spent in these conversations, which draw both from the morbid themes of McCarthy’s early work and his recent decades sharing workspaces with scientists at the Institute.
Often vulgar and always peculiar, the cast of characters in The Passenger, and their interest in science, has already drawn criticisms from many reviews, which complain that the friend group’s considerations of suicide are too grim, that their interest in physics is distractingly intellectual, or that the novel’s characters and descriptions are overly portentous. The impression I gathered from most early reviews was that this novel was insufferably interior, abstract, or full of itself.
And in some ways, maybe it is. But this novel is also more interpersonal and ethically driven than anything McCarthy has written since Suttree. It eschews the hyper-violent plot arcs of his bloody thrillers (Blood Meridian, The Road, No Country for Old Men), opting for an emotional, grief-stricken, often humorous journey through the social ladders of New Orleans in the 1980s.
Because conversations are the novel’s real focus, when the plot arrives, it usually doesn’t stick around for long. This is especially surprising because the novel’s inciting incident is classic McCarthy: By chance, Western and his crew dive into a plane wreck near New Orleans. The plane is missing its ninth passenger and black box. We watch as Western and his coworkers grow afraid, realizing that the underwater plane may have been visited before they arrived. Strange men follow him; Western skillfully hides letters, sets traps in bars, flees to the woods.
But for all these early resemblances to No Country for Old Men, the machinations of this new plot give way to another kind of story, one that’s difficult to summarize. Bobby and his sister Alicia Western live in the shadow of their father, a Manhattan Project scientist who helped invent the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge, TN, and Los Alamos, NM. Loaded with guilt and terrified of the end of the world, both siblings pursue the mysteries of physics—and each other.
If the critical reception to The Passenger has already been mixed and confused, that may be in large part because McCarthy has never written a novel like this. It’s possible nobody ever has. Even if many of The Passenger’s apocalyptic themes, dive bar settings, and formal aberrations are variations of roads McCarthy has already traveled, its environmental ethic, its physics backstory, and its steady insistence on the importance of friendship make this novel wholly new. The novel also broaches subjects like fascism and conspiracy theories—new areas for McCarthy.
But we should get back to the topic of incest. It’s not the only difficult theme in this story.
◊ ◊ ◊
The inclusion of Bobby’s sister Alicia (who will be the primary character in the upcoming companion novel, Stella Maris) helps explain why The Passenger feels so strange and unique. Every chapter that follows Bobby around New Orleans, Knoxville, or Ibiza is interrupted by a shorter, italicized chapter from Alicia’s perspective—even though we know from the opening page of the book that Alicia killed herself a decade before Bobby’s role in the novel began. (This is another similarity to Outer Dark, which followed both siblings after their separation.)
Plagued by hallucinations of strange characters she calls her “cohorts,” Alicia’s chapters roam through past conversations she had with the leader of her hallucinated cohorts: the Thalidomide Kid, a man with funny shoes and flippers for hands who refuses to call Alicia by her own name. The Thalidomide Kid (likely named for the “thalidomide tragedy,” when a German sedative prescribed in the 1950s caused side effects like nerve disease and birth defects) gathers Alicia’s cohorts into bizarre sideshow acts to amuse her, despite her protests that she’d rather be alone.
The Alicia chapters are much shorter than the Bobby chapters, which feels appropriate because Alicia has her own novel forthcoming in December, while this is mainly Bobby’s tale. There are a few moments of fantastic payoff to Alicia’s chapters closer to the end of The Passenger, but for most of its length, they read as interludes primarily meant to remind us that Alicia’s death is the ghostly trauma haunting Bobby, who never managed to fall out of love with his little sister.
Alicia, a more gifted mathematician than Bobby was a physicist, was also a musician and poet. As a result, Bobby’s grief for Alicia turns his attention not only to themes of physics, biology, and mathematics, but also to themes of poetry, literature, and art.
On multiple occasions, characters discuss the connections between scientific and artistic ways of thinking. Readers learn that quantum “quarks” were named for a line in Finnegan’s Wake. Readers also see the ease with which Alicia can translate between the musical acoustics of violins and the mathematical models underpinning their resonance. (These musical passages call to mind the recent work of Santa Fe-based scholar Peter Pesic.) We hear about Bobby Western idling in a shack where “the days cooled and he sat on the beach in the raw wind off the gulf wrapped in an army blanket and read physics. Old poetry. He tried to write letters to her.”
The close connection between mathematical physics and art is a recurring motif. I wondered if this was, in part, because McCarthy felt anxious about the presence of science his own novel. By drawing our attention to affinities between poetry and mathematics, he may be crafting an apologia for his own habit of inflecting his art with science. And if there’s a way to bridge these domains, then the preoccupations of mathematicians (many of whom, like Ludwig Boltzmann, as McCarthy reminds us, were led by their calculations to suicide) will feel all the more emotionally pressing. This is a novel about siblings with mathematical minds, after all. They are plagued not only by mathematical paradoxes but also by the violent consequences of their father’s equations.
If McCarthy had omitted the mathematics from this fictional world, it would have been a loss. These are brilliant characters with a troubled past. Their father’s original sin is a sin of physics, and the traumas of atomic bomb guilt and secretive parents haunts them to this day. Still, there are long sequences of self-consciously accurate prose that occasionally grow tiresome, as when the S-Matrix theory of quantum mechanics is debated for twelve pages. McCarthy’s attention to intense accuracy also busies his physical descriptions of the world, as when we learn in a single paragraph that a team of divers not only wore “Viking commercial wetsuits” and “late-model SuperLite 17 helmets,” but that they talked on “new EFROM wireless underwater phones,” breathed through “two pairs of Justus stainless steel tanks,” and lit their way with “Ikelights.”
But there are moments when these hyper-specific, often hyper-branded descriptions pay off, and these are usually moments when more empathetic dimensions like friendship or solitude interrupt mathematical conversations. (It seems relevant that in 2018, I happened to see Cormac McCarthy buy one of the two recent books about Einstein’s friendship with Gödel at Collected Works in Santa Fe.) Midway through the novel, in a debate about quantum physics, we learn “that if you had these neutrino-nucleon collisions that spun off the W particle and gave you a lepton with the opposite charge you’d have to get a Z particle every once in a while.” This weighted prose gives way to a surprisingly poignant depiction of the scientist who spent his life learning these things:
The last time I saw him I just drove up there and spent the day. He’d papered the walls of the cabin with printouts of old particle collisions from the Bevatron. He’d lost a lot of weight. He didn’t have much to say.
This is Bobby Western describing his father, an architect of the Manhattan Project. What the two siblings know about mathematics and physics, they know because of their father. Their scientific passions, the way they tremble in the face of mysteries and paradoxes, their sense of being separate from the world and only knowing how to confide in one another—this is something they inherited from this man who, in the end, didn’t have much to say. They learned that from him.
◊ ◊ ◊
The two Western siblings often wonder about primordial or inherited knowledge—the things that people and animals know without having been taught. We learn about men from an earlier time, near Bobby Western’s childhood home, who “built a sashmill back in the woods […] that was powered by a steam engine,” even though, as Bobby’s grandmother wonders: “I dont know how they knew to do what they done, Bobby. I want to say that they could of done anything. They didnt even own a book. Other than the Bible of course.” The novel also points to the similarities between muskrat and beaver dams. The young Bobby Western had “asked his biology teacher if this meant that the muskrat’s knowledge and the beaver’s descended from a common source.” (Unsurprisingly, “the teacher didnt seem to understand what he was talking about.”)
There is also a lengthy discussion in the novel of the things babies know: how they fear, what they want, why they cry. Both Western siblings reach for evolutionary, adaptive explanations to account for these kinds of primordial knowledge. Responding to one interlocutor’s comments about the nearly universal screams of babies and their likely desire to return to the womb, Alicia wonders: “I’m not sure what the adaptive advantage could be to share an innate and collective misery.” Still, Alicia admits that staying in the womb might be preferable to entering the world.
Here as elsewhere, Alicia betrays her basic resistance to reality, noting that as a child she “didnt take all that much interest in the world.” She rapidly became a quiet child, having been told that she stopped crying early in youth. Her distance from the world is linked to her predisposition for mathematics, a realm of abstraction that she not only hopes to keep separate from the physical world, but even from written formulations. At one point she claims that when you write down a mathematical thought, “it takes on the constraints of any tangible entity. It collapses into a reality estranged from the realm of its creation.” After that, “you can no longer entertain the illusion that it holds some deep insight into the core of reality. It has in fact begun to look like a tool.”
Plagued by this deep-seated resistance to the usefulness of math and the beneficence of reality in general, Alicia longs to return to the primordial place before knowledge, reality, and language locked everything into such rigid restraints. In a similar vein, after watching “a small and trembling flight of geese […] fording the last of the day in the thin air,” Bobby languishes in the winter cold and experiences a vision: “In the coming night he thought that men would band together in the hills. Feeding their small fires with the deeds and the covenants and the poetry of their fathers. Documents they’d no gift to read in a cold to loot men of their souls.”
Both of the Western siblings want to escape reality—Alicia from the basic fact of reality itself, which she achieves at first through mathematics and later through suicide, and Bobby from the sins of his father, the world without Alicia, and the weight of living in the wreckage of a post-Trinity world. The basic narrative tension in the novel comes less from its red herring plot about surveillance and the missing passenger in the plane wreck—which at first threatens to turn this into another No Country for Old Men—and more from the question: Can Bobby Western escape the sins of his father, the regret he feels from losing his sister, and his distrust about reality itself?
But the character facing this struggle is named Western, inviting comparisons to the Western narrative genre that McCarthy already deconstructed in Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. In full, he is named Bobby Western, often taking the nickname Squire, suggesting that he’s a quasi-knight, defending the West with old-school, macho charm. At one point he is compared to Joseph Conrad’s colonial ivory trader, Kurtz, and at others he embodies an individualistic resistance to government and authority.
In other words, the novel asks: Is any honest embodiment of “the West” capable of redemption, or what Alicia’s cohorts will later call “justice”? Can Bobby avoid following the path that his smarter and kinder sister charted for him, the path that led to her bleak, solitary end?
Bobby is set up as a possible exception to this family rule. In college, more keen on reality than his sister, he switched majors from mathematics to physics. Later still, he traded his physics degree for a life spent racing cars, traveling the world, and eventually facing his fear of the watery depths. As a salvage diver, Bobby Western’s storyline in the novel begins when he literally dregs up remains from destroyed older worlds, facing his primordial fears while embodying a less theoretical kind of knowledge. It’s the only way he knows to stay alive.
◊ ◊ ◊
McCarthy explored similar questions of primordial knowledge in an essay called “The Kekulé Problem,” published in Nautilus in 2017. At the time, it had already been more than a decade since his previous novel, The Road, came out in 2006. As a board trustee at the Santa Fe Institute, McCarthy spends much of his time around mathematicians, physicists, and complexity scientists. These conversations inspired “The Kekulé Problem,” which plunged a mystery at the origin of language and consciousness: Why do scientists like August Kekulé find solutions to problems in unconscious forms, unfettered by language? Kekulé purportedly came to understand the solution to his problem (What is the configuration of the benzene molecule?) after dreaming about a snake. “Why the snake?” McCarthy asks. “Why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.”
According to McCarthy—who in The Passenger returns to the hauntingly prescient nature of dreams with a regularity bordering on repetitiveness—the unconscious does not speak to us with language. There is, in other words, a basic disconnect between language and the unconscious mind; the primordial thoughts, fears, and desires that actually motivate us are unknown to our linguistic selves. When our deeper, ancient selves speak to us, they do so in codes, metaphors, and poems. This is because language is only a substitutive approximation. Names themselves are things that point to other things. “The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing,” McCarthy wrote about the basic act of naming in the 2017 essay, “is at the root of all things of our doing.” Language is a matter of finding identity in difference, which is itself a narrative act that we impose upon our languages and lives. This capacity for abstraction, difference, and separation from reality is something the prelinguistic, unconscious mind resists and despises. “And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that [the unconscious] has been getting along quite well without [language] for a couple of million years?”
It is admittedly bleak to think that the unconscious is antagonistic to language. Imagine going around believing that our basic capacity for storytelling feels like a colonizing imposition to the unconscious. If there is something Malthusian in The Passenger, a tone antagonistic to humanity, I think its origin lies here, with an idea even more upsetting than those in The Road (a novel that was, for all its dreariness, at least optimistic about storytelling and the need to “carry the fire”).
In The Passenger, human language, reason, and justifications are just as suspect as they seemed in “The Kekulé Problem”—sometimes with surprisingly colonialist overtones. Even the crash that opens the novel confounds Western’s ability to understand the world with the language he knows. The prose seems to confirm this. Below the water, there are “sheets of paper with the ink draining off into hieroglyphic smears.” It’s as if McCarthy’s own prose, with its missing punctuation, embodies the primordial experience of the world before—or after—“Western” kinds of language. And the prose invites such comparisons between the “premodern” and the “postmodern” worlds, as when the third personal narration observes that Western, alone on a beach like Margaret Atwood’s Snowman, “could be the first person in creation. Or the last.”
This is the starting point of McCarthy’s new opus, the depth from which Western must ascend: somehow, in language, he must learn to believe in reality again. Despite the hounding protests of his unconscious, he must learn to tell stories that’ll allow him to live. The issue, for McCarthy, is that to say something that is not antagonistic to the unconscious would amount to saying the unsayable. For a grief-stricken drifter like Bobby Western, that won’t prove easy to find.
◊ ◊ ◊
The novel often points to this Rilkean question of what is unsayable or unspeakable—not only in this philosophical sense that we cannot say everything that we can think or feel, but also in the moral sense that there are unmentionable taboos (things that could be said, by someone brazen enough to say them). Alicia points to this very distinction early on, when she corrects the Thalidomide Kid for using the word “unspeakables” when he meant to say “unmentionables.”
In this novel, McCarthy plays a writer who is willing to say what is unmentionable or taboo, and as a writer willing to reach after truths that cannot easily be uttered in ordinary language. More than once, his novel moves forward emotionally by gesturing to what is ancient, antique, or lost to the past, as if building renewed relationships with the premodern world might act as a balm for the wound of living in a world after Trinity—the atomic test site in New Mexico where unmentionable equations were written with such success that the Manhattan Project physicists learned to speak the language of a physics that could incinerate the entire inhabited world.
These nostalgic gestures to the past are eerily similar to the aesthetic urge in fascism—an occasional subject in the novel, and a trend that is rooted in the prelapsarian desire to return to the world that existed before the supposed degeneration of the modern world. The historian Roger Griffin famously called fascism “palingenetic,” meaning that fascism longs to return to the previous glory of the once-great nation. More literally, palingenesis is the recreation of the past, especially the recreation of colonial times of plenty and comfort in the imperial, “Western” core.
The Passenger contains many fascistic elements, although to McCarthy’s credit these are usually uttered by side characters, as when Western’s friend Sheddan expresses a desire to kill or sterilize the mentally ill, or when others claim a genetic basis for intelligence. Midway through the book, Western’s grandmother tells the story of poor Black tenants forced from their homes during the construction of the Oak Ridge site for the Manhattan Project, but she casually compares them to animals: “Some of them families was colored. They was some of em wound up just livin in the woods like animals.” There is a nuanced portrait of a trans woman in the novel, but she spends much of her time arguing for transmedicalism. Later, Western speaks with an institutionalized interlocutor who wonders: “What if the purpose of human charity wasnt to protect the weak—which seems pretty anti-Darwinian anyway—but to preserve the mad? Dont they get special treatment in most primitive societies?” Near the start of the novel, Alicia’s hallucinated cohorts include “two blackface minstrels in overalls and straw hats” who “came flapping out in enormous yellow shoes” with stools and a banjo. (They speak in McCarthy’s blackface AAVE: “Wellsuh Mistah Interlocutor we goin to do the menstral dance for Miss Ann heah. We fixin to do the drylongso shuffle and we goin to dance the weevily wheat till the housecats take to the barn.”)
These unabashedly problematic moments are, admittedly, uttered not by McCarthy’s third-personal prose, but by characters the novel hastens to call into question on moral grounds. As even the fascistic Sheddan admits, “if there is a common keel to our understanding it is that we are flawed. At our core that is what we know.” Even the disturbing minstrel scene is a product of a troubled white woman’s hallucinations; her unconscious holds racial prejudice. It seems likely that McCarthy means to condemn these trends in his mostly white cast by showing, not telling.
But McCarthy’s third-personal prose sometimes dips into the same palingenetic urge espoused by Sheddan. If older forms of technology like mills and antique forges are described with prelapsarian reverence, newer technologies are depicted as frightening dangers to freedom. Many of these fears are warranted, like oil slicks muddying coastal waters, atomic bombs devastating cities, or surveillance technologies imposing on everyday life. McCarthy is excellent at depicting the environmental difficulties that industrial technologies create for the working class; as Adam Rivett wrote in October for The Sydney Morning Herald, “no one in American letters describes working-class effort with his poetry.” This is especially clear when McCarthy shines his light on environmental despoilation and technological ravages. Still, in a novel where characters tell the American protagonist “Western” that “this country is your problem”—a problem the novel resolves, in part, by pointing to the forgotten splendors of Europe—McCarthy’s prelapsarian depictions of ancient technologies and antique political forms threaten to feel oddly palingenetic.
This trend is not unique to McCarthy; as Michael Chabon noted in his review essay about The Road, “ambivalence toward technology is the underlying theme” in post-apocalyptic stories, but McCarthy refuses to provide the assurance of “a necessary cleansing of the old corrupt world.” In the already post-apocalyptic 1980s of The Passenger, McCarthy finds worn traces of lost, better days: “Of the gristmill itself nothing was left save the stones of the foundation together with the rusted iron axle that had once carried the millwheel and the rusted iron collars in which it once had turned.” Increasingly toward the end of the novel, where the words “ancient” and “antique” surface at least half a dozen times, pre-industrial European technology appears as a comforting presence. We read of “a world at once antique and never to be,” and that there are “remnants of vanished worlds in these outposts” where Western tries to find his last reprieve.
It is hard to know what to make of such moments, since they arise in a novel that deconstructs the founding narratives of “the West,” directing our gaze to the horrors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Auschwitz. (This is similar to the problem of McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian, which depicted the unmentionable brutality of settler-colonialism while reproducing settler ideas of indigeneity.) This new novel is not a fascist screed, and McCarthy readily maligns such thinking. In a 2017 interview with the Santa Fe Institute President, David Krakauer, McCarthy condemned the works of philosopher Martin Heidegger (the philosopher who, coincidentally or not, is most often associated with the notion of “the primordial”) because “nowhere in there is there anything about the moral life,” a fact that for McCarthy is linked to Heidegger’s antisemitic Black Notebooks and his turn toward Nazism. Barring a few possible exceptions, McCarthy has always delved into difficult subject matter in his novels precisely in order to fight against nihilism and work his way to moral meaning again. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to know where exactly to the draw the line between the palingenetic warnings of the openly fascistic Sheddan and the love for prelapsarian worlds that constantly animates McCarthy’s own poetics.
Wherever that line should be drawn, the soaring heights of McCarthy’s prose descriptions of natural environments, animals, storms, and even human places (bars, motels) can become trickier to enjoy after one notices—juxtaposed against the palingenetic trend of his characters and prose poetics—that his naturalism is filled with a similar urge to return to worlds lost to the past.
For what it’s worth, McCarthy might know this. During a particularly memorable scene near the end that I’d rather not spoil with specifics, one character begrudgingly admits that the past is better left past. I’ll ask readers to decide this question for themselves after they finish the novel.
◊ ◊ ◊
I mentioned “The Kekulé Problem” before, including its bleak anxiety about the unconscious mind’s resistance to language—a resistance rooted in the fact that language is based in the act of naming, which finds identity in difference. The Passenger has another, less bleak answer to this question about finding identity in difference: a sense of identity and commonality often emerges when we recognize ourselves in the other. Echoing Amitav Ghosh’s description of “recognition,” moments of recognition in The Passenger often arise in confrontations with nonhuman beings.
For a while near the end, the novel turns into a wintering story almost entirely about Western’s relationship with animals. Deer watch him. Bats enter and leave his home without inflicting pain. Owls startle, fly away. After mice take over his kitchen, Western sets traps and catches two mice. But after he “emptied the little warm bodies into the trash” and resets the traps, he hears a click and sees a new “little whitefooted mouse had both its front paws on the bail of the trap and was trying to push it up off his head.” Western silently frees the mouse and throws away the traps. After all, we’d been told three pages before that, even when starving, he did nothing to catch “the cutthroat trout in the river” because “he’d lost all heart to kill things.” Back in his overrun home, he eventually “learned to live with whatever things there were in the house and they with him.”
This stretch of the book finds many other instances of communion or similarity between living beings. After he spots an initially threatening “figure in a hooded parka” trying to see into his house, evoking the dangers of The Road, Western sleeps and wakes to see “clear winter starlight at the window and the dark trees hooded in snow.” Humans and trees each stand at the window peering into his world, each “hooded” by the winter cold. Whether through acts of empathy, or through these subtle similarities in the language, human and nonhuman beings increasingly blend together, potentially fulfilling Sheddan’s ominous, prophetic revelation from earlier in the novel:
The horrors of the past lose their edge, and in the doing they blind us to a world careening toward a darkness beyond the bitterest speculation. […] When the onset of universal night is finally acknowledged as irreversible even the coldest cynic will be astonished at the celerity with which every rule and stricture shoring up this creaking edifice is abandoned and every aberrancy embraced.
The desolation of The Road, revisited in prophetic warnings surprisingly often in The Passenger, tears down the arbitrary rules and barriers that divide the world’s creatures, splitting apart the modern partition of nature and culture (à la Bruno Latour). Earlier in the novel, Bobby Western picked up a copy of Hobbes while waiting for a storm to calm on an oil rig at sea. The line between Hobbesian barbarity and civilization—the artificial line “the West” has always used to propagandize its supremacy—falls away in Western’s story not as Sheddan feared, with violence and hopelessness, but instead with acts of empathy and communion. The end of the “civilized” “West,” for McCarthy, finally begins to look like simply the start of another kind of story.
◊ ◊ ◊
But one of the most frustrating aspects of this sprawling, beautiful, and complicated book is the fact that its protagonist, Bobby Western, is often depicted as waiting. If “Jesus wept,” Western waited. (Like the former verse in the Bible, “Western waited” may be the shortest complete sentence in The Passenger.) He does not believe he can change his fate. He knows he is being followed—his bank accounts are seized by the IRS; his passports are revoked; mysterious figures break into his homes—but he does nothing about it. What’s more, other characters remind him that he’s doing nothing about it. Whatever tension builds in the narrative, this is not a story with cascading sequences of cause and effect, where his choices always lead to natural consequences. Gold can be discovered out of nowhere, as can clues leading to rare violins. A man can stumble into a mysterious plane wreck, be investigated, and then do nothing of consequence about it.
Instead, the tension that builds in this novel is an ominous sense of paranoia. Bobby Western stumbles deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that threatens to consume his life until everything becomes suspect. In a memorable section where Western waits alone for a crew to arrive on a drilling rig in the ocean, a storm settles in and we experience its cacophony when the third-personal prose of the novel falls into a free indirect discourse of rising questions about his safety. Western sits down to eat. “Then he stopped. There was an empty coffeecup over on the counter. He didnt remember seeing it there before. Would he have noticed it? It must have been there.” He sits down to finish his meal, and then goes about his day, but his internal fears sometimes interrupt the third-personal descriptions without warning: “He padded down to the galley and got some hamburger patties out of the freezer and put them on the counter to thaw. Then he went up to the operations room and sat and watched the storm. Someone was on the rig with him.”
Because of this streak, as other reviews have noted, The Passenger edges toward the paranoia of Thomas Pynchon. Echoes of Pynchon are also present in The Passenger’s opaque title. Much as in Pynchon’s V., the word “passenger” recurs several times in McCarthy’s narrative, always referring to something different. It lacks a single, stable referent, and we never find its source. Because the novel isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall and comment on what kind of story it’s telling, I read the titular passenger as a stand-in for the reader. While working through this story—and it does at times feel like work—it can be disarming to feel lost in a windy narrative filled with so many characters who don’t know which destination they’d like to pursue, except when they suspect their destination is death or the end of the world.
But in many ways it is more apt to suggest that this is Cormac McCarthy’s 2666—the novel in which the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño flitted between mysteries without conclusions and intellectual conversations that feel portentous and unnerving. In both novels, the end of the world is a recurring motif, but the apocalypse is less a plot point than a commentary on the current trajectory of the world. In both novels, haunting dreams are recurring elements that upset the otherwise realist simplicity of the novels’ episodic tales. In both novels, those dreams are often rooted in taboo romance or obsessive thoughts about the central character’s younger sister. And in both novels, the specters of fascism and World War II weigh heavily on the narrative. In Bolaño’s 2666, it becomes clear that the mysterious, flighty novelist at the heart of the story hid his past from the world both because he had been drafted as a Nazi soldier in his youth and because he killed a Nazi war criminal in an Allied POW camp. Not to be outdone, The Passenger’s “Western” hero—in a passage also eerily reminiscent of Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust—reflects that he is the metaphorical child of Adolf Hitler:
The rolling hills and ridges to the east. Somewhere beyond that the installation at Oak Ridge for enriching uranium that had led his father here from Princeton in 1943 and where he’d met the beauty queen he would marry. Western fully understood that he owed his existence to Adolf Hitler. That the forces of history which had ushered his troubled life into the tapestry were those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the sister events that sealed forever the fate of the West.
But where Bolaño’s world finds salvation in beauty and the power of literature, The Passenger repeatedly warns of the dangers of beauty and stories, finding solace instead in tangible acts of empathy and love. For all their hypermasculine rough edges, most characters in The Passenger routinely care for one another; the novel often slows for lengthy stretches to detail the ways its many narrative passengers carry each other’s burdens. An old friend makes sure that he has been kind. A man checks in on his reclusive friend. A person offers to take back the difficult truths he said to a friend in partial jest. People help search for their friend’s lost cat. Even lawyers help clients who cannot pay. Helicopter pilots offer to fly you home, free of charge, rather than leave you stranded on a desolate oil rig in a storm like the castaway in a post-industrial Robinsonade.
This is only a trend, not a rule—there are moments of cruelty and disregard in these pages, as in all of McCarthy’s novels—but the masculine anti-heroes of The Passenger spend so much of their time assisting one another, caring for family and friends, and working together through communal grief that it ultimately comes as little surprise when a storm wipes out birds on a beach and Bobby Western decides to drop everything in his life to protect them:
In the spring of the year birds began to arrive on the beach from across the gulf. Weary passerines. Vireos. Kingbirds and grosbeaks. Too exhausted to move. You could pick them up out of the sand and hold them trembling in your palm. Their small hearts beating and their eyes shuttering. He walked the beach with his flashlight the whole of the night to fend away predators and toward the dawn he slept with them in the sand. That none disturb these passengers.
As always with Cormac McCarthy, this novel sings most beautifully during such moments of environmental and natural compatibility, when the landscape, its nonhuman creatures, and its human heroes thwart their predilection for grim violence and nihilism, finding that they share something in common with the rest of the world. The respect given to owls, mice, ermines, and a dozen other species in this novel is a constant reminder of McCarthy’s capacity for making kin.
These moments of solace never last long, but there are always more acts of empathy to come. As a result—despite other reviews that have, not without reason, asserted the contrary—this novel ultimately feels somehow less grimdark than most of its predecessors. There is a light at the end of this road, and the light is here linked with empathy. The only issue is that the light, much as in real life, can be hard to keep in sight at all times. Ebbing through “the ages of men stretching grave to grave,” this light comes and goes, waiting beyond the ridge for us to follow.
Zachary Calhoun is a Book Review Editor of Flyway, a Faculty Steward of the Everett Casey Nature Center & Reserve, and an emerging fiction writer from New Mexico. He has an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University and a PhD in Philosophy from Tulane University. He was the 2018 recipient of the Aristotle Prize and the 2022 Writer-in-Residence at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. His work has appeared in From Sac, After the Pause, The Review of Metaphysics, and Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy. He teaches creative writing and environmental philosophy in Ames, Iowa.